I hated Al Jazeera when I was growing up. Al Jazeera meant news about the Second Intifada — Israeli incursions and killings. It meant we would spend our long days under Israeli-mandated curfew at home glued to the TV screen, waiting for updates.
Little did I know I would end up working at the network in 2002. It was in that small office of Al Jazeera in Ramallah where I first met Shireen Abu Akleh, who was already a big star.
I don’t remember our first encounter, but it’s impossible to forget Shireen.
At Al Jazeera, I began working in the channel’s master control room. It wasn’t long before I was lured to the news desk — and I can’t be more thankful for having made the jump.
Shireen set the bar for relentless journalism. She would not only double, but triple-check her sources. She read widely, and was always well prepared with a storehouse of information if news broke — as it so often does in this part of the world.
I spent the day with Shireen on the side of the road in Jericho on March 14, 2006, when Israeli Occupation Forces surrounded the Palestinian Authority prison to arrest Ahmad Saadat, the Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. We were the only news channel there for most of the incursion, and Shireen was on camera for hours describing the scene, speaking with officials, witnesses, and family members.
She never complained about the long, tough days. She made herself available to be deployed in the field whenever needed. She was an old-school journalist, notepad in hand marking asterisks (we jokingly called them saraseer, Arabic for cockroaches) to her notes so she could refer to them when asking questions, reporting live, or writing a story.
Shireen amplified people’s voices; she did not override them. That much is obvious in her reports, she is almost invisible in the script but her empathy is very much present.
In 2008, we met with Faiq Abu Manneh in Lydd as part of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 60th Nakba commemoration. The 80-year-old spoke between tears for nearly half an hour, recollecting his memories of the Dahmash Mosque massacre. Abu Manneh told us about how he had to remove the bodies of several dozen Palestinians stacked in the mosque a week after they were killed, and how he and others were made to stand by the mass grave that they were forced to dig, thinking they too would be shot by the Israelis. Shireen had only asked one question to unleash this flood of nightmares: what happened? She never interrupted.
I left Al Jazeera Arabic in 2009 to pursue a degree in journalism in the United States. Shireen and I stayed in touch and caught up in New York when she was there on assignment in May of 2010. For years, she would poke fun at how we spent two hours on a bus to the Bronx looking for authentic Italian food.
In 2010, I returned to my base in Ramallah, for a position with Al Jazeera English — I’ve been working as the channel’s producer in the Occupied West Bank since.
Over the past 12 years, I exchanged ideas, information, and contacts with Shireen. She was my mentor, my colleague, my friend.
Shireen once told me a story about an unclaimed corpse that had been in the Abu Dis morgue for months: Casket 5056. In May 2012, Israel handed over 91 bodies to the Palestinian Authority of bodies it had been withholding for decades. In 2013, the Israelis handed the unclaimed corpse over to the family of Nasser Al Bouz, but the family had doubts about the identity of the body. DNA results confirmed their fear — this was not Nasser Al Bouz. The results also revealed that the remains belonged to more than one person.
I believe that Shireen’s ability to tell the Palestinian story is unparalleled. One of very few who master the art of telling the most complicated of stories, simply.
When six Palestinians escaped the Israeli prison of Gilboa in September 2021, and were later recaptured, she wrote a post on her Facebook account declaring that the story wasn’t over: “We will return to our routine, our joys and frustrations, and Israel will build more jails, erect more checkpoints, raise its walls and reinforce its fences, but it won’t ever shut its eyes. It’ll sleep with an open eye and with fingers on the trigger, because a dream chases it. A dream of a whole nation, inside and outside of its cells, of freedom.”
It wasn’t until after Shireen was targeted and killed by Israeli forces in Jenin on May 11, 2022 that the family of Mahmoud Al Ardah, one of the six prisoners, said that she visited his family in Arrabeh southwest of Jenin, bringing a jar of honey. She wanted to fulfill Mahmoud’s wish to deliver the honey to his aging mother.
Friday breakfasts were a ritual in the office. We would gather before heading out to cover weekly protests against illegal Israeli settlements. A staple was ka’ek (Arabic for Jerusalem’s sesame bread), along with falafel, hummus, spread cheese, jam... and Shireen’s laugh.
Shireen had a contagious smile and an exceptional sense of humor. The little things would make her day. In the darkest moments, she would find light.
A walk with Shireen down any street showed how much she was loved. In Jenin refugee camp, we often sat at the camp roundabout: kids would gather and she would initiate little chats about school, hope, games, and hair dye. Her charm was cross-generational. If anything, she was closer to people’s hearts than their eyes were to the TV screen.
Shireen would not miss an opportunity to learn something new, never hesitated to ask for others’ opinion and guidance. She had confidence that she was able to learn, regardless of age and experience. I never saw her happier than after her graduation from Birzeit University in October 2021 with a diploma in digital media.
In April of 2022, we discussed ways to keep the Palestine story alive over Ali Baba wafers, sitting in a Jenin hotel lobby after a long day of reporting on Israeli raids across the city. “The cause is just,” she said. “It will always resurface and impose itself on the news agenda. We just have to keep our eyes open; there are stories that need to be told everywhere.”
She was not a fan of adjectives but rather a firm believer that the brutality of the Israeli Occupation spoke for itself.
Shireen told a lot of stories that have documented the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli Occupation. And here I am, reminding myself to talk about her in the past tense, as I try to make sense of her murder.
The bullet that hit Shireen, hit us all with the truth that we often downplay as journalists: No one is safe under Occupation.
I don’t think that Shireen was killed because Israel wanted to hide the truth or intimidate those who seek it. She wasn’t killed because of who she was nor what she represented. She was, simply, killed because of who her killer is.
The blessing of being able to speak to people when they’re at their most vulnerable is also a journalist’s curse, as we often have to break into people’s most intimate spaces to capture their emotions. Every time I have done this, I have lost a little more of the thick skin I thought I had developed after covering so much pain. Shireen’s loss is not the kind of pain that goes away, it’s the one we have to learn to live with... and I have learned nothing since 11 May.