Shireen Abu Akleh’s name might not be familiar to a lot of OC residents who live thousands of miles away from where she spent over 20 years reporting.

But for many other people living in Orange County and all over the world, Shireen’s work was distinctive, taking them into account in a way that few other news outlets do.

They grew up watching her on TV.

For over two decades, she kept them informed on the occupation of Palestine – despite enormous personal risks.

This week, she was killed while reporting on a refugee camp in the Northern West Bank.

Many people in Orange County and across the world believe the 51-year old reporter was targeted and killed by Israeli forces for doing her job. The Israeli Defense Force says it’s not clear how she died but say they’re investigating the killing. 

Last night, about 30 residents from OC and Southern California paid their respects to and mourned Abu Akleh’s loss at a vigil at Anaheim City Hall.

Present at the vigil was Bill Bitar, a Los Angeles County resident who said he grew up in the same neighborhood as Abu Akleh’s family – Palestinian Christians living in Jerusalem. Akleh reportedly spent her summers in the United States and was a U.S. citizen.

“She was our voice in Palestine because we could not see the truth here. She was our truth in Palestine — not just for the Palestinians in Palestine but everybody outside Palestine as well – that’s why she was silenced,” he said in an interview after the vigil.

Bill Bitar, a Los Angeles County resident, converses with other people gathered for the vigil for Shireen Abu Akleh, following speeches given by attendees. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Al Jazeera, Abu Akleh’s employer, says Israeli forces shot her dead this week while she was reporting on an Israeli raid in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the occupied West Bank.

Footage from Al Jazeera shared by the New York Times shows the moments after she was shot and shows her wearing a vest marked with the word “PRESS” on it.

According to a statement, Israeli Defense Forces said they raided the camp to apprehend a “Hamas terrorist” and were met with gunfire and explosives so they shot back. They said that Akleh was killed during the raid but that “it is unclear what exactly led to her death.”

But journalists and witnesses present when Abu Akleh was killed dispute that claim

A month before Abu Akleh was killed, the International Federation of Journalists along with other groups filed a compliant to the international criminal court alleging that Israel systematically targets Palestinian journalists which they say amounts to a war crime.

“The complaint details the systematic targeting of Palestinian journalists on behalf of four named victims – Ahmed Abu Hussein, Yaser Murtaja, Muath Amarneh and Nedal Eshtayeh – who were killed or maimed by Israeli snipers while covering demonstrations in Gaza. All were wearing clearly marked PRESS vests at the time they were shot,” reads a press release from the group.

“At least 46 journalists have been killed since 2000 and no one has been held to account.”

Last year in May, Israeli airstrikes hit and destroyed the building that housed the local bureaus of Associated Press and Al Jazeera. The Israeli government said that there were Hamas military intelligence assets there but the AP said there was no indication of Hamas in the building.

The bombing took place as people across the world protested against Israeli airstikes that killed at least over 240 Palestinians in Gaza, including over 60 children.

Meanwhile, Hamas fired rockets that killed a dozen Israelis, including two kids.

In Orange County, the occupation of Palestine hits home to many residents who took to the streets in protest last year in May and held a vigil for Palestinians killed by those Israeli airstrikes.

[Read: Global Palestinian Protests Arrive in Orange County; Community Groups Call on Elected Officials to Take Action]

There is another protest for Palestine scheduled tomorrow in Los Angeles at 11 a.m. outside the federal building on Wilshire Boulevard where a much bigger crowd than Friday’s vigil is expected to attend including OC residents. 

Many of the organizers behind the LA protest are from Orange County as well.

Remembering Shireen

Rania Sbaita, 22-year-old Irvine resident and Cal State Long Beach student, said in a phone interview Friday hours before the vigil that she is going to honor Abu Akleh and to stand in solidarity with journalists and “truth seekers.”

Sbaita said when she saw the pictures of Abu Akleh emerge online recently she didn’t quite recognize her.

Until she heard her voice.

“All Palestinians, especially, the generation that grew up with our parents watching Al Jazeera, we grew up with her voice in the back and her sign off is ingrained in our memory … She’s the voice that defined our childhoods… It’s part of our earliest awareness of our identity as Palestinians.

Rania Sbaita, 22-year-old Irvine resident and Cal State Long Beach student

Sbaita is half Palestinian and half Lebanese. Her father’s family comes from Gaza.

She said it’s the duty of the press to report what happens in the world and create a space of accountability.

“When that is silenced, when that is muffled, it only allows for oppressors and abusers to continue their reign of oppression,” Sbaita said, adding that the press brings issues to light.

“Especially in Palestine when there’s so much going on at all times,” she said. “And you’re constantly told, ‘Oh, it’s too complicated.’ You can turn to honest ethical journalism and you’ll see that it’s actually not complicated. And that is because of the brilliance that is ethical journalism.”

Rania Sbaita, 22-year-old Orange County resident, listens to mourners speak at the Friday vigil. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Sbaita said one of the issues that journalists like Abu Akleh bring attention to is just how much U.S. taxpayer dollars is given to the Israeli government for military assistance.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. made their largest single pledge in military assistance to Israel as part of a $38 billion agreement to be given over the span of a decade ($3.8 billion annually), according to the White House.

“When you see the journalism of Shireen, for example, you see exactly where that money goes, you see it in the weaponry, you see it in what’s considered offensive and defensive military equipment … including the bullet that went into Shireen’s head, those are unfortunately paid for by us,” Sbaita said.

Ayah David, Placentia resident, holds up a sign outside Anaheim city hall on May 13, 2022 following the vigil. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Ayah David, 32-year-old Placentia resident and one of the lead organizers behind the vigil, called Abu Akleh a symbol of resistance, a fearless Palestinian woman.

“Just her being there on the frontlines, it meant that there was some kind of hope. If the right person heard this, maybe there’s going to be a change. We felt she was our voice to the Arab world. And even as a little kid, I knew that,” she said. 

“I don’t know this person and yet I mourn her… We all feel like this was somebody we lost from our family or friends. A voice that’s been silenced that has been speaking on this for the last 20 years.”

David, who is half-Mexican and half-Palestinian, grew up in Palestine in a town known for its architecture called Deir Dibwan on the outskirts of Ramallah until she was about 14. 

From a young age, she joined in on protests calling for the liberation of the Palestinian people and as a kid would watch from the rooftops as Israeli missiles rained down on Palestine.

“I wanted to speak out on the unbreakable truth that we Palestinians hold that the world seems to be in denial of,” David said.

David and other residents also want to send a message that killing and targeting journalists and trying to hinder free speech is not acceptable.

“This is an attack on the truth … And not only for journalists here, but journalists all over the world. It’s going to happen in Russia, it’s going to happen in Afghanistan. All journalists and reporters are at risk, because if Israel can get away with it, then anyone can get away with it.”

Ayah David, 32-year-old Placentia resident.
Bakr Teebi, Lake Forest resident, holds a sign outside Anaheim city hall on May 13, 2022 following the vigil. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

Bakr Teebi, 32-year-old Lake Forest resident and cofounder of Yalla Indivisible, said that Abu Akleh gave Palestinians a voice and showed their humanity.

Teebi said what happened to Abu Akleh is mind blowing considering who she was.

“She’s a decorated journalist for one of the most established investigative journalistic institutions in the Middle East and in the world and then she’s an American citizen,” he said.

“We need to make sure Shireen’s voice, her efforts, her willingness to put herself in harm’s way to bring attention and to be the voice of the Palestinians isn’t something that has gone to waste.”

Bakr Teebi, 32-year-old Lake Forest resident

Teebi said the Israeli government attacks critics and people who make them look bad including members of the press that highlight the conditions Palestinians live in – conditions human rights groups like Amnesty International say amount to Apartheid.

“Israel blatantly attacked the press. She was attacked and she was killed despite clearly being identified as press and she was actually killed because of it, not in spite of it,” he said.

Teebi called journalists like Abu Akleh society’s only bastion of truth and objectivity and he said no matter the stories they pursue they shouldn’t be killed.

“Otherwise,” he said. “We’d be delegating all of our sources of truth and all our sources of information to the governments that subjugate all of these oppressed people.”

Teebi’s family comes from a village called Salama on the border of Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

It’s a village that doesn’t exist anymore. It was depopulated back in 1947, he said.

“My grandfather was actually on his honeymoon, when it happened. He got married, he went to Egypt for his honeymoon, he came back and lo and behold, there were soldiers there. So he had really no choice but to leave,” Teebi said.

Orange County resident Marwan Sbaita sits on the steps of Anaheim city hall at Friday’s vigil in Anaheim. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

During Friday’s vigil, mourners had an opportunity to speak about what Abu Akleh meant to them and called on people to reach out to elected officials and members of congress who have stayed silent on the issue and demand they take action against her killing.

The vigil took place the same day Israeli police attacked mourners carrying Abu Akleh’s coffin during a funeral procession on Friday, beating the people carrying the casket with batons and almost making them drop the coffin, according to news outlets and footage of the attack.

Aliso Viejo Resident Lulu Hammad speaks on the steps of Anaheim city hall at a vigil for slain Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh on May 13, 2022. Credit: DEVON JAMES, Voice of OC

At the vigil, people held up pictures of the police attacks on the procession.

Aliso Viejo Resident Lulu Hammad brought attention to the police attacks and called it out at the vigil.

“They fear her so much. They’re worried that even in her death she will expose them and she did,” said Hammad.

The vigil was hosted by a handful of local organizations including Yalla Indivisible which Hammad cofounded, the Arab American Civic Council, the OC Justice Initiative and the Community Organizing Revolutionary Equality Movement.

Israeli forces have said they’ll investigate the attacks on the mourners and the killing of Abu Akleh which they have said happened during a “counterterrorism” operation.

Journalists standing beside Abu Akleh have said there wasn’t a shootout right before she was shot and other witnesses say the fighting happened hundreds of yards away from where the reporter was killed and well before her and another reporter were shot, according to the Washington Post.

Journalism and Free Speech Targeted Across the Globe

Abu Akleh joins a long list of journalists across the world who have been killed while trying to do their job and inform their communities.

In fact, three journalists were killed in Mexico recently – Yesenia Mollinedo and Sheila Johana García on Monday and Columnist Luis Enrique Ramírez last week.

Since the start of the year, 11 journalists have been killed in Mexico which was deemed the most dangerous country in the world for the press for the third year in a row in 2021, according to a report by the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders.

Back in 1970, a Los Angeles Sheriff deputy fired a tear gas projectile and killed Mexican American journalist Ruben Salazar while he was covering the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War.

Some journalists have better luck.

They aren’t killed. 

They get arrested.

Others aren’t so lucky. 

They get tortured.

Burma has become the second biggest jailer of journalists in the world following the military overthrow of the government in 2021. Reporters Without Borders report that at least 7 journalists were tortured there last year.

China is the biggest jailer of journalists and the biggest jailer of female journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders.

The group also noted a record number of jailed journalists in 2021 globally – a 20% increase from 2020.

In Cuba, independently reporting the news or speaking out against the government can get you put under surveillance, detained or worse.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Cuban government has committed human rights abuses to journalists and artists critical of the government.

It’s not just in China, Cuba or Burma.

Journalists get arrested in the U.S. too.

In fact, two photojournalists were arrested last month at a protest in San Clemente while taking pictures on the streets of a demonstration and vigil for Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man shot to death by a Sheriff’s deputy in 2020 after being stopped for jaywalking.

[Read: Photojournalists Arrested; Activists Criticize OC Sheriff’s Response to Kurt Reinhold Protest]

Voice of OC covered the issue last week – an article that Hammad pointed out at the vigil.

“We had protection in the press,” she said. “For me the press was my protection…  What journalists in Palestine are doing is the main protection for the Palestinian people.”

NPR recently reported that over 200 journalists were arrested in the past two years in the United States – many during the George Floyd protests in 2020.

A new California law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year is intended to protect journalists from police interference while covering protests.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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