Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh dies at the age of 51

JERUSALEM – Shireen Abu Akleh initially studied to be an architect but did not see a future for herself in the field. So she decided instead to devote herself to journalism, becoming one of the best-known Palestinian journalists.

“I chose journalism to be close to the people,” she said in a short reel shared by Al Jazeera soon after she was shot dead in the West Bank Wednesday. “It might not be easy to change reality, but at least I was able to bring their voice to the world.”

A Palestinian American, Ms. Abu Akleh, 51, was a familiar face on the Al Jazeera network, where she spent 25 years reporting, making a name for herself in the midst of the violence of the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada, which shocked Israel and the occupied. West Bank since 2000.

She was shot in the head in the West Bank city of Jenin, Al Jazeera and the Palestinian Ministry of Health said, blaming Israeli forces for his death. The Israeli army continued Twitter that “Palestinian gunshots” may have been responsible.

Mohammed Daraghmeh, the head of the Ramallah office for the Arabic-language news bulletin Asharq Newswho had been friends with Ms. Abu Akleh for many years, said she remained committed to covering all issues that concern Palestinians, large and small.

He last spoke to her two days ago, he said, and told her he didn’t think Jenin’s events were important enough to be covered by an elderly reporter like her.

“But it went anyway,” he said. “She covered history the way it should be done.”

It wasn’t the bigger or political stories that Ms. Abu Akleh cared most, but the smaller ones that showed how people lived, said Wessam Hammad, a news producer with Al Jazeera who has worked with her for 17 years. He said she would see a story where others wouldn’t see it.

“Sometimes I’d say, ‘No, Shireen forget it, it’s not a great story,’” he said. “But he was always thinking about so many different points of view on how we could do it, and how we can make it a very human and very touching story about Palestinians that no other journalist would have thought of doing.”

Born in Jerusalem to a Catholic family, Ms. Abu Akleh studied in Jordan, majoring in journalism. She spent time in the United States when she was younger and obtained American citizenship through family from her mother, who lived in New Jersey, friends and colleagues said about her.

Al Jazeera said that after graduating from college, she worked for various media, including Voice of Palestine radio and the Amman satellite channel, before joining Al Jazeera in 1997.

He soon became a household name among Palestinians and Arabs across the Middle East, inspiring many to follow his path.

Her live television reports and endorsements became iconic to those who wanted to emulate her, said Dalia Hatuqa, a Palestinian American journalist and friend of Ms. Abu Akleh.

“I know many girls who have grown up practically standing in front of a mirror and holding their hairbrushes and pretending to be Shireen,” Ms. Hatuqa said. “So her presence was lasting and important.”

Among them was his 27-year-old niece, Lina Abu Akleh. As a young man she would take her aunt’s written reports and recite them into her Barbie’s pink phone.

“I’ve always told her that I don’t know if I have the courage and strength that you have, and she said it’s not easy, it’s a very difficult job,” said Lina Abu Akleh.

His death also illustrated the dangers Palestinian journalists face doing their jobs, whether in the occupied West Bank, Gaza or inside Israel, he said.

In a 2017 interview with Palestinian television channel An-Najah NBC, she was asked if she was ever afraid of being shot.

“Of course I’m afraid,” he said. “At a specific moment you forget that fear. We don’t throw ourselves to death. Let’s go and try to find where we can stay and how to protect the team with me before thinking about how I’m going to get on screen and what I’m going to say.

The ambassador of the Palestinian Authority to Great Britain, Husam Zomlot, called her the “most important Palestinian journalist”.

The Abu Akleh family became widely known in Palestinian society thanks to Ms. Abu Akleh.

“Everyone knows who Shireen is,” said her cousin, Fadi Abu Akleh. “Every time I introduce myself, people ask me, ‘How is Shireen related to you?’”

He lived in Ramallah, the West Bank and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem she lived with her brother and her family, including two nephews and a nephew, to whom she was very devoted, she said, her cousin.

“She was my best friend, my second mom, my travel companion,” said Lina Abu Akleh. “She was my everything.”

Their last trip together was to New York to spend the Christmas holidays with relatives in the United States.

Ms. Abu Akleh recently spent several weeks in the United States, returning to Ramallah about a month ago. But it appears she never seriously thought about living in the United States, Mr. Daraghmeh said.

Al Jazeera once sent her to the United States to work. After three months, she returned to Ramallah.

“When she came back, she said, ‘I can breathe now. Everything in the United States is technical and complicated,” Daraghmeh recalled. “’ Life here is simple. I love Palestine. I want to stay here. ‘”

A state funeral procession will be held Thursday in the West Bank city of Ramallah, departing from presidential headquarters and in the presence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, according to the president’s office.

She will be buried on Friday in Jerusalem in a cemetery next to her mother.

“Shireen was a pioneer,” Ms. Hatuqa said. “I’m just sad that she won’t be around to continue driving in this industry.”

Raja Abdulrahim brought back from Jerusalem, e Ben Hubbard from Doha, Qatar. Hiba Yazbek contributed reportage from Nazareth, Israel. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.