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May 16, 2022

Why Did Israel Execute Shireen Abu-Akleh?

Steve Salaita

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Simply put, because she was Palestinian.

Immediately after Israeli soldiers executed Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu-Akleh and fired at a group of her colleagues, observers began asking how such a horrible thing could happen.  Why would Israel murder a journalist well-known throughout the Arab World?  A noncombatant wearing appropriate press gear?  A high-profile Palestinian with U.S. citizenship?  At best, it seemed like a terrible PR move.  It didn’t make any sense.

Except it did make sense.  In fact, from a certain point of view killing Abu-Akleh was painfully sensible.

It’s natural to seek rational explanations for what appear to be mindless acts of violence.  Explanation is contingent on material conditions, though, and so we have to understand the situation in context of Zionist settler colonization.  Using the humanistic logic prevalent in most civil societies, Israel’s conduct was baffling.  Its soldiers murdered a civilian in full view of people whose job is to report news.  Those soldiers had to know that they couldn’t keep their act a secret, that targeting journalists would result in worldwide outrage.  And yet they did it anyway.

Why?

To arrive at an answer, we have to discern the colonizer’s psyche.  We’re not dealing with normal civil society standards, first of all.  The relevant context is military occupation.  In such a context, gratuitous state violence is normal.  Obviously, killing Abu-Akleh has the immediate benefit of silencing a prominent voice of Palestinian resistance, one that had long exposed Israeli crimes of aggression.

There is more to the story, however.

We also have to explore the assumptions underlying a desire for simple explanations.  By asking for reasons over and over again, observers seek answers to incongruous questions.  In so doing they’re apt to tacitly implicate the victims in their own suffering.  The journalists must have done something.  There had to be a provocation.  Israeli soldiers don’t just shoot innocent people for the hell of it.

But that’s exactly what Israeli soldiers do.  Israel has murdered around fifty journalists over the past two decades.  One or two might be an aberration.  Fifty is a policy.

We needn’t turn to the victim’s behavior for answers to the colonizer’s violence.  He is violent because of colonization.

So there’s no need to seek legible reasons for Abu-Akleh’s murder according the rationale of civic decency.  The settler doesn’t need a “reason” to kill the native.  The settler kills because deracinating the native is a precondition of his social identity.  It is a function of his legal status and class position.  Israeli forces viciously attacked a crowd carrying Abu-Akleh’s coffin—abusing our beloved martyr even in death—which only affirms the fact that the settler kills precisely when confronted by the native’s vulnerability.  There is a higher purpose to his violence.  The settler doesn’t kill simply to produce death; he kills to negate the native’s existence.

Israeli forces attacked Abu-Akleh’s corpse because killing her wasn’t enough.  They needed to expunge her from a land they claim by divine mandate.  Her body impedes a mythological birthright underlying the settler’s entire sense of self.  She has to be rendered nonexistent in order for the settler to survive.  Such is the logic of desecrating ancient Muslim cemeteries and planting flora over the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages.

The same forces attacked hundreds of mourners not because they were unruly, but because they weren’t also in the casket.

The settler’s violence, in short, is endless.  It is the only way he knows how to be a good citizen.  And it is the only way, in the end, he can imagine a meaningful existence.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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