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‘She lived her whole life for her people’

Earlier this week St Bride’s church in London saw a memorial service to Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, killed by a bullet to the head by Israeli forces on the West Bank. LOUISE RAW reports from a moving and poignant event

“THIS is a sad, proud day …”

The rector of St Bride’s church on Fleet Street, traditionally the “journalists’ church,” summed up the emotions of everyone who had gathered there on Tuesday morning. 

We were there to mourn, and also celebrate, Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American journalist shot dead on the West Bank on May 11. 

The rector also acknowledged the anger and horror occasioned by the murder of the highly regarded Al Jazeera reporter, who was just 51 when she died.  

In the nave of this beautiful 17th-century church, the pain and sense of dislocation at Abu Akleh’s sudden and shocking death were palpable. 

She had been covering an Israeli operation on the occupied West Bank, clearly identified by her “Press” armoured vest and helmet, when she was shot dead by a single bullet.  

Eyewitnesses said the fatal shot had been fired by Israeli forces, though Israel disputes this — just three days before the service, a United Nations spokeswoman had announced that the conclusion of their independent investigation was that the fatal shot had indeed been fired by Israeli forces. 

Speaking in Geneva on June 24, Ravina Shamdasani of the High Commission for Human Rights had said “the shots that killed Abu Akleh and injured her colleague Ali Samoudi came from Israeli security forces, and not from indiscriminate firing by armed Palestinians, as initially claimed by Israeli forces,” calling the bullets “seemingly well-aimed.” 

Abu Akleh had been killed instantly by a single shot to her head, in the precise place most vulnerable beneath her protective helmet. 

Her family were still absorbing this apparent UN confirmation of what was already suspected — that this was effectively a political assassination. 

Joining the memorial service by video link, Shireen’s niece Lina Abu Akleh called her aunt “my best friend,” and told us “a part of me is broken.”

In the agony of her grief, Lina said: “Every day is like a nightmare” — she struggled to go on, but tried to remember that her aunt had been hopeful and optimistic by nature, looking always for the “silver lining,” and to hope and work for justice for her.  

She reflected with a wry smile that Abu Akleh had, in a way, been “still reporting, still exposing truths” even at her own funeral, when the world saw footage of Israeli forces attacking mourners, including the pallbearers carrying her coffin.

Abu Akleh’s colleague Ali Samoudi was with her when she was killed, and himself shot in the shoulder during the attack. 

Like all of those who spoke about Abu Akleh he recalled her unusually generous nature, deep compassion and goodness — “a giving person, like a sister.” 

Even when not working, he said, Abu Akleh was constantly busy trying to help rehouse and raise funds for displaced Palestinians. Shireen was a hero to him, he said, as well as a loved friend: “A lady of light in a holy city.”

Shireen’s friend Najwan Simri spoke to us from Jerusalem, outside, with the city as her backdrop — “The view Shireen and I loved,” she said. 

It was the same view behind Abu Akleh in the photograph of her, smiling in a pink shirt, which had been placed in the middle of the St Bride’s nave. 

Najwan had met Shireen when working for Al Jazeera as a young woman — she noted, self-deprecatingly, that being young and impressionable she used to boast about working with this famous figure. 

Gradually the two women became extremely close: always travelling, covering wars and clashes; and far from home, Abu Akleh became the person “nearest to my soul,” providing for Najwan a sense of family and security: “the bullet killed a mother [figure] who was always there for me.”

Shireen was the kindest person she’d ever known, Najwan recalled, and also very funny — all her friends remarked that, beneath the seriousness of her job, Abu Akleh had a terrific sense of humour: “we would laugh, cry and spill our hearts together.” 

Wadah Khanfar, former director general of the Al Jazeera Network, also remembered Abu Akleh’s humour, as well as her composure, and great humility: she was never motivated by ego, but by a sense of purpose: “She lived her whole life for her people.”

Despite the constant fear and threat she was exposed to, he remembered that Abu Akleh always found time to enjoy life, to find a positive, to laugh and make others laugh if she could. 

He recalled his coffees and conversations with Abu Akleh in Ramallah invariably being interrupted by young Palestinian women eager to tell her how much she had inspired them — in some cases, to careers in journalism themselves. 

He spoke too of the incredible stresses of her work, “her homeland torn apart by apartheid, seeing abuse on a daily basis — coping with the trauma of seeing, hearing and experiencing what she did.”

Dr Nadia Naser-Najjab, a close long-term friend of Abu Akleh’s, was there in person, and fought back tears describing the loss of her beloved friend, a central figure in their friendship group, always first to smooth things over if people fell out: “our diplomatic friend.” 

I spoke briefly to Dr Naser-Najjab afterwards and she told me about the sense of unreality she struggles with; she has to stop herself from trying to call her friend, and from endlessly scrolling through their old messages, the only thing which brought her brief comfort in the immediate aftermath of her loss. 

At St Bride’s, British Palestinian singer Reem Kelani sang the Arabic song The Singer Said, with the lines “I died standing/ Standing… I died like the trees,” and noted in her introduction that Abu Akleh had also died standing, simply doing her job, offering no threat to anyone. 

As a candle was lit in front of the photograph of Abu Akleh in Jerusalem, the congregation stood to observe a minute’s silence for Abu Akleh and the other journalists killed in the region since 2000 — the list of names printed in the order of service showed that this is a total of 46, now, including Abu Akleh herself. 

After the service, at the reception in St Bride’s where Palestinian Medjoul dates were served, I spoke to actress and activist Maxine Peake, who had travelled down from Manchester to pay her respects, and to MPs Claudia Webbe and Jeremy Corbyn. 

Corbyn commented on what a beautiful and moving service it had been, and how good it was to see so many humanitarian groups like Medical Aid for Palestinian present: but pulled no punches about the appalling act of murder that had taken place, and said that peace in the region could only come with justice, and an end to the occupation. 

As to Abu Akleh’s legacy, as her colleague Wadah Khanfar noted, she is one of those rare people whose absence will be felt, and make as deep an impact, as did her presence. 
 
Her niece Lina noted that even under brutal attack at Abu Akleh’s funeral, the Palestinian people still resisted, and pallbearers “carried Shireen on their shoulders, just as bravely and surely as she had carried their voices and their truths for 25 years.”

Today, Palestinian babies are dressed in clothes bearing her image, and it seems certain they will grow up hearing about terrible death and tremendous, courageous life of Shireen Abu Akleh.

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