Q&A: Lina Abu Akleh on Justice for Her Aunt Shireen’s Death
Shireen Abu Akleh (l Jazeera correspondent) was a familiar name among Palestinians before she was murdered on May 11. In the weeks since her aunt’s death, Lina Abu Akleh has found herself advocating for justice. U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Israel Wednesday amid mounting pressure from congressional Democrats, human rights groups, and Shireen’s family for a full investigation and accountability over her death. Shireen was a citizen of both the United States and Palestine. “We will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death and will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world,” Biden said Friday during his visit to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
A U.S. State Department press release on July 4 said that a government analysis concluded that “gunfire from IDF [Israel Defense Forces] positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh” and that there was “no reason to believe that this was intentional.” The analysis has been criticized by Palestinians and rights groups. News outlets, as well as a U.N. investigation separately found that Shireen’s bullet was probably fired by an Israeli soldier. These findings contradict Israeli government statements that Shireen was involved in combat during her final moments.
Continue reading: The Problems With Israel’s Version of the Killing of Reporter Shireen Abu Akleh
Shireen’s family had sent Biden a letter requesting that he meet them during his trip to the Palestinian territories, expressing disappointment in the U.S. response, and asking to direct the Department of Justice to “take action on Shireen’s extrajudicial killing.”
TIME spoke with Lina amid Biden’s July 13-16 Middle East trip about her memories of Shireen, what accountability means for her family, and her take on the U.S. response to her killing.
Could you please tell me more about Shireen’s relationship? How was it as an aunt to her? What are some of her most memorable moments?
Shireen was my best friend growing up. Shireen was my older sister, second mother. We’re a very small family. We considered her our best friend. She’s someone who we grew up looking up to as a role model. At the same time she was a great aunt. Her teachings of card playing were passed down to us as we sat with her.
Lina Abu Akleh (left) and her brother Shireen Abu Ashleh (right), as children.
Lina Abu Akleh
Was there a card game she loved?
Tarneeb [an Arabic trick-taking game involving four players]. A few days before she was killed, I remember she was at home and I was sitting next to her and I was looking at her phone—she was playing tarneeb on her phone. So it’s funny how it went from like literal card games to like a digitized version. She was trying to show me how to play for all of those years.
Have you ever figured it out yourself?
Once in a while, I was able to do so. I recall telling her that I knew some people who loved it during COVID. She gave me tips on how to go about it and which cards I should use.
Her travels were always enjoyable. She needed professional attire for reporting so I was always there to help. These are the things I’m going to miss. These are the things I miss.
Which Netflix show are you looking for?
Although she was averse to gore, she really enjoyed crime shows and mysteries. We watched the last episode together. Black Mirror. It was something she loved. She even had this thing where she would skip all the way towards the end so she would know it’s gonna be a happy ending. Everything I’m sharing now is ironic. Her ending wasn’t happy, unfortunately. But in terms of how I remember her, she was a very fun person—not as serious as she appeared on TV.
How does Shireen affect justice and accountability for your family?
Accountability is for us holding both the soldier responsible for Shireen’s murder and the one who ordered her death accountable. We want them to be imprisoned. It’s also for the entire system to be held accountable. This is part and parcel of Israel’s occupation policy. This must be brought to the attention of Israel’s government. This includes justice for Shireen as well for all Palestinian journalists who were killed and justice to all Palestinians who have experienced violence during their day.
Since long, it has been dangerous for journalists to work in Palestinian territory. Since 2000, at least 30 journalists have been murdered in Gaza and West Bank. How does Shireen’s death fit into this wider context?
It’s important to note that this is not a separate incident. 2018 was the U.N. In 2018, the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry issued a report that stated that Israeli forces attack civilians, paramedics, journalists. Shireen wasn’t the first journalist to be killed. Shireen’s case was similar to Shireen’s in 2003. James Miller was an American citizen who was shot and killed south of Gaza City in Rafah. He was also wearing a helmet, a vest, and a jacket when he was attacked and shot in the neck. It’s very unfortunate that in the past there wasn’t accountability. It was not held that the Israeli government could be held responsible. The military wasn’t held responsible.
Does Shireen’s status as an American citizen have any impact on the U.S. response and how it has reacted to the situation? Is it possible that this would have been of any benefit?
It’s important to note that Shireen was a human being regardless of whether she was a U.S. citizen. Shireen was an innocent human being, who was brutally murdered. The U.S. handling of the case was disappointing. We appreciate all the comfort and solace they’ve shown us from day one. But it’s time to see meaningful action. We were hoping that there would be more engagement and support but unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Her citizenship was U.S. She was also a journalist. These are crucial factors. And considering how much the U.S. talks about human rights, press freedom, protection of journalists, especially women, I feel like it hasn’t been applied to Shireen’s case. Shireen shouldn’t be an exception just because she was a Palestinian American. Shireen was an American citizen at the end. They have an obligation to the Israeli government. But because she’s Palestinian, and she was killed here, I feel that has made a difference in the way the U.S. has handled her murder.
U.S. State Department Analysis stated that there is no reason for this to be intentional. What’s your response?
It was disappointing that someone would write something like this, particularly considering that it was not supported by any evidence. It was merely an analysis or summary of the Israeli government’s narrative. It is interesting to me that they claimed it was accidental. It is important to know more about the credibility and the qualifications of those who performed this analysis.
Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen and her aunt in her office, May 2.
Lina Abu Akleh
What can you tell us about U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s outreach to your family?
Blinken called earlier this week. He called us and we reiterated our requests and asked for a meeting with the president during his visit. The statements were also disappointing to us. We felt neglected, abandoned. And that’s when he offered his sympathies. He offered to meet us in Washington, D.C., to have a conversation. It’s important for us to engage face to face. This allows us to see their future plans. But at the same time, we’re hoping that we would meet him here in the place where Shireen was born, the place where Shireen was living, and, most importantly, the place where Shireen was killed. This was her home—Jerusalem was her home. She was the Palestinian daughter. So it was very important that we meet here and unfortunately, until this moment, we still haven’t heard back. There was no definite answer as to yes or no with regards to meeting him here so I’m not sure that will happen [Biden and Blinken departed to Saudi Arabia on Friday].
Is it possible to meet him anywhere in the world or specifically in the Palestinian territory?
In relation to his meeting in Palestine. I’m not sure about D.C. I don’t have any information about that trip yet.
Please tell me something about you and how your life was.
My family was Palestinian Armenian and I grew to be a Jerusalemite. (My mother’s Armenian.) Because Shireen was a journalist, politics was something I was exposed to. She was an inspiration to me. That’s what led me to pursue education and political studies and eventually work in human rights and policy.
Although I love Jerusalem, it was not an easy place to grow up. It was quite traumatizing to have to go through Israeli checkpoints in order to reach my school. It’s not easy. It’s not something you get used to, and you should never get used to it.
The University of San Francisco gave me my Masters of International Studies. My concentration was in governance and human rights. It was a surprise to me that my education, experience and expertise would be used by Shireen to promote justice and accountability. It was something I didn’t expect to be doing. But when you’re put in such situations, you have no option.
Continue reading: On Biden’s Middle East Trip, Human Rights Aren’t a Priority
What do you hope Shireen’s legacy will be?
Shireen’s legacy is a big one. She was a champion for truth, justice and peace. In Palestine, the Arab World, and elsewhere, her voice will always be heard. Before she became a journalist, she was an individual. Because she had been part of the struggle for freedom, she humanized Palestinians. She took time to listen and understand them. She heard all of their stories, so she went to every refugee camp and village. She’s covered every story from every angle. This was her message. She wanted to expose the reality of Palestinians in the field, the realities and violence of occupation. Her message was “From the people, for the people.” So that’s why we saw tens of thousands of people show up at her funeral and many continue to talk about her.
Her work was always right in front of me, so I would sit there and observe. I would patiently wait for her to go live so I could tell everyone, “Shushu is live.” I never called her Shireen. It was her nickname. She would wait patiently for me to see her on TV. Last year, in May, during the last war in Gaza, I remember I was stuck in San Francisco because they closed the airport in Tel Aviv, so I couldn’t fly there. Shireen did not respond to all my texts that day. She always replies within a minute. This was my only concern. The TV was my constant companion. In San Francisco, I would watch her and make sure that she’s okay. And so that was my source of comfort when I used to see her: she’s safe, she’s reporting. She’s being cautious. Growing up, I watched her grow and heard her stories. I felt as if I had been there for her whole experience. I was able to have everything from her in my last days with her when she came home.
Shireen Abu Akleh, at Lina’s baptism.
Lina Abu Akleh, image
It seems like she’s been a really powerful influence in your life.
Yeah, very. The struggle for water access in the Jordan Valley was the subject of her news report. She had chosen this particular town. Lina, this is not something that many people discuss. And I was like, you know what—my thesis is going to be about the water issue. It’s not covered as much as it should be. She inspired me greatly. Every direction and every decision I’ve made in my life was very much inspired by her.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think is important to know?
It’s important to also talk about the funeral. I say this all the time that Shireen wasn’t killed once. She was shot twice. Her funeral was also attacked by Israeli riot cops, one in Jenin and the other in Jerusalem. Their attack on us was brutal. They were well-armed and attacked mourners. But even during that time, I felt Shireen’s voice was still louder.
This interview has been reduced in size and clarified.
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