‘I lost a sister’: Shireen Abu Akleh honoured at Washington vigil

Washington, DC – Hundreds of Palestinian rights supporters and press freedom advocates have gathered in Washington, DC to pay tribute and demand justice for Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank last week.

The candlelight vigil, held outside the National Press Club late on Tuesday, came nearly a week after Abu Akleh was fatally shot while on assignment.

“We grew up watching Shireen. Shireen was our voice. And we felt like that voice was cut off,” Najat Ghanem, a mother of two, told Al Jazeera, as she held back her tears.

Abu Akleh reported from the Palestinian territories for decades – covering all aspects of life under Israeli occupation.

Vigil attendees hold signs that read ‘In cold blood’, referring to the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Salma Shanaa, a Palestinian-US teacher residing in neighbouring Virginia, said the killing of Abu Akleh on May 11 while she was wearing a flak jacket clearly marked with the word “PRESS” was the “ultimate injustice”.

“She has been in our house for 25 years,” Shanaa told Al Jazeera, referring to Abu Akleh’s TV appearances. “I felt like I lost a sister. We all felt the pain deep within our hearts. Shireen is not better than the martyrs who preceded her, but Shireen is a symbol.”

As cars drove by – with many honking their horns in support – the attendees sang Mawtini (My Homeland), a song considered by many Palestinians as an unofficial national anthem.

Lina Musmar, a pharmacist who was draped in a Palestinian flag, said Abu Akleh was killed while telling the truth about the injustices in Palestine.

“It’s just very difficult to believe that she was killed like that and the way they treated her casket at her funeral,” Musmar said.

Israeli police on May 13 attacked Abu Akleh’s funeral procession and beat pallbearers carrying her coffin with batons in scenes that sparked outrage across the world.

“Everything is just heartbreaking,” Musmar added. “And the fact that she’s a US citizen and the US aren’t even conducting an investigation is just beyond belief at this point.”

Vigil for Shireen Abu Akleh
Vigil attendees light candles to honour slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

President Joe Biden’s administration condemned the killing and called for an investigation but said it would trust Israel to conduct the probe. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Israel has the “wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation”.

Several attendees questioned Washington’s logic of allowing Israel, whose military is the prime suspect in the killing, to investigate itself.

“When I became a US citizen, during the naturalisation ceremony, we pledged loyalty to the United States,” Musmar told Al Jazeera. “Today, I question the United States’ loyalty to its citizens, given that Shireen Abu Akleh was a US citizen and she was killed, and all they did was condemned. It’s really sad.”

Palestinian rights advocates have been urging the administration to condition or restrict US aid to Israel over the killing of Abu Akleh and other rights abuses.

Israel receives $3.8bn in US military aid annually, and this year Washington added another $1bn in assistance to “replenish” Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system after the May 2021 Gaza conflict.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Israel’s B’Tselem among other rights groups have accused Israel of committing apartheid against Palestinians – findings that have been rejected by the Israeli and US governments.

In an interview with Al Jazeera before the vigil on Tuesday, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib reiterated her call for an independent investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh.

“The killing and targeting of Shireen Abu Akleh and what had happened to her is a war crime,” Tlaib said. “And asking the people that actually committed the crime to investigate themselves is just unbelievably wrong.”

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