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The family of slain Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh demands justice

Lina Abu Akleh sits near photographs of her late aunt, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, at their family home in east Jerusalem in July.
Rosie Scammell
AFP via Getty Images
Lina Abu Akleh sits near photographs of her late aunt, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, at their family home in east Jerusalem in July.

Updated October 19, 2022 at 10:16 AM ET

Lina Abu Akleh was thrust onto the global stage after her aunt was killed while reporting on an Israeli military raid in the Palestinian city of Jenin in May.

Her aunt, Shireen Abu Akleh, was the famed Palestinian American correspondent for the Arabic language network Al Jazeera. She spent decades reporting on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories until she was killed while doing her job.

At first Israeli authorities claimed Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian gunmen in the midst of fighting. That was despite witness accounts and videos showing there was no active fighting in the area.

Following international scrutiny, Israel admitted Shireen Abu Akleh was most likely killed by an Israeli soldier but said the killing was a mistake. The Abu Akleh family fiercely disputes that. They believe the killing was deliberate.

Her niece says she was wearing a vest clearly labeled "press" on both sides and continued to face gunfire even as she and her colleagues at the scene identified themselves as journalists.

"All the investigative reports concluded that all the bullets targeted her upper body," Lina Abu Akleh adds. "Even after she was on the floor, bleeding to death, they were still firing towards her direction. Even when there was a young man trying to help her and take her into a car, they were still being fired at."

Lina Abu Akleh has become the face of her family's global campaign for accountability and justice. She was recently named one of Time's 100 emerging leaders for "publicly demanding scrutiny of Israel's treatment of Palestinians."

Abu Akleh has met with U.S. lawmakers and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and has attempted to meet with President Biden about her aunt, a U.S. citizen. She tells Morning Edition host that she believes the U.S. failed because it did not conduct a transparent and independent investigation into the killing of her aunt, a U.S. citizen.

"For us, justice is putting an end to this impunity and holding the perpetrators accountable for the killing of my one and only Aunt Shireen," she says.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On why Abu Akleh feels the U.S. has failed her family:

We met with Secretary of State Mr. Antony Blinken, and we really appreciated that he gave us the time to speak to us and share his condolences. We appreciate knowing that he's committed to accountability. However, at this point — now more than ever — it's so important that all these words that we heard on the Hill are followed by action, by holding the perpetrators accountable.

But we left D.C. knowing that we have a lot of allies on the Hill, especially after we met with various representatives, members of Congress, senators who continue to show their support to us and calling for the administration to launch an investigation since, until today, we haven't seen any action taken.

On their unsuccessful attempts to meet with Biden:

Until this day, we haven't heard back from them in terms of meeting with the president. The president was here in July. He was 10 minutes away from our home, from Shireen's home where she grew up. And unfortunately, he did not meet with our family. And when we went to D.C., we were hoping that he would be meeting with us, but again that did not happen.

And we were definitely disappointed, because it's very important to us for the president to hear from us and for us to know that he's taking this seriously, since she's a citizen and a journalist. And this is something he's always talked about, especially a few days before Shireen was killed, he said it's important that journalists, especially women in the field, in war zones, are protected. Yet this did not apply to Shireen. So until this day we continue to demand and to request that the president meet with us.

On whether she thinks Abu Akleh's death is treated differently because of where it happened:

Of course, and I always say this. Because she's a Palestinian-American, she hasn't received the same action, the same attention as she would if she was killed somewhere else. And this is something that's very unfortunate, but it also continues to show the double standards that the international community has and that the U.S. has. Unfortunately, it's very sad that if she was killed in a different part of the world, then we would probably have justice and accountability from day one.

On why her family filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court:

It's really important that when states fail to provide protection for their own citizens ... it's important that we pursue justice and accountability in any way possible. We're hoping that the prosecutor would actually take up this case and would investigate it.

On the day of her aunt's funeral, when Israeli forces raided mourners:

That day was very traumatizing. Until this day, I still get shivers when I pass by the hospital in Jerusalem ... We were faced with the Israeli paramilitary police occupation forces who stormed the hospital in a barbaric manner. They were armed, attacked me and my family, attacked mourners, pallbearers with batons, stun grenades. And the casket almost fell to the ground because of how they were beating the pallbearers ... Until this day, I don't understand how a funeral was so threatening for them. And it felt as if they were trying to silence her even after her death. They violated our right to put Shireen to rest, our right to a funeral, and most importantly, they violated her right to dignity even after death.

The entire experience was traumatizing, it was humiliating and it's something I don't wish for anyone to go through that. But then again, this was seen all over the world. Everyone saw what it's like to be living under this kind of occupation.

On what Shireen Abu Akleh was like:

Shireen was more like my best friend. She wasn't just an aunt, but someone I relied on on various occasions, various moments of my life. She's someone who was always there, regardless of how difficult her job was, how demanding, challenging and emotionally exhausting it was, she was always there for me and my siblings, always ready to help us in any way possible.

She was very funny, and this is not something everyone sees on TV, especially when it comes to journalists — you have to put on that journalist face, as I like to call it. And behind the scenes, she was very funny, always lit up the room, always excited about life.

It's definitely been difficult not having her around. We feel the void in the family, with her friends. There is emptiness, but we still feel her presence and her spirit around us.

On how she wants her aunt to be remembered:

I want her legacy to be remembered as someone who stood up for truth, for justice and for peace, as she was the voice of justice, the voice of truth, the voice of Palestinians. I want people to remember her voice and the voice that entered every single house in Palestine and the Arab world. Her legacy continues to be honored up to this day with all the various awards ceremonies that I attended all over the world, and all over [the] United States. And these awards are a testament to her legacy, which was where she spoke truth to power. She empowered not just me as her niece, but she empowered millions and countless of young Palestinian women and Arab women who looked up to her and were inspired by her professionalism, by her work as a female journalist in the field.

This interview was produced by Lilly Quiroz and edited by Mohamad ElBardicy.

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.