On Collective Grieving

Shireen Abu Aqleh and the Palestinian Nakba

May 16, 2022

This week marks the seventy-fourth anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe). On May 15, as Zionists celebrate the 1948 formation of the state of Israel, Palestinians continue to grieve the theft of our land and the massacres, destroyed homes, and expulsions that forcefully established an ongoing collective experience of catastrophe. This year, our grief is acute as we also mourn the loss of Palestinian-American Al Jazeera reporter, Shireen Abu Aqleh, who was assassinated by targeted Israeli sniper fire outside of the Jenin refugee camp in the early morning hours of May 11, 2022.

A journalist of over two decades, Shireen has long served as a communicator of Palestinian pain, grief, tragedy, resilience and resistance. Combining a commitment to her people and struggle with her craft, she was beloved by Palestinians everywhere and regarded as one the most credible journalists covering Palestine by the international press. In keeping with her tradition, on May 11, Shireen along with veteran journalist Ali Al Samoudi had arrived at the Jenin camp wearing their press vests and helmets prepared to cover yet another Israeli raid. Instead, Israeli soldiers shot at them with three bullets from M16 rifles: Ali sustained a bullet to the shoulder and Shireen was fatally killed with one shot to the head just below her helmet.

Immediately following her murder, videos circulated the web showing Shireen laying in a pool of her own blood: adjacent to her lifeless body was her colleague, journalist Shatha Hanaysha, and a young Palestinian man attempting to pull her limp corpse out of the line of fire, while also being shot at. The news traveled the world instantly: Millions across the globe took to social media with expressions of anger, pain, and horror only to be shadow-banned by big tech corporations. Western media outlets framed the assassination as disputed, borrowing talking points from Israeli officials that it was Palestinian fighters who were responsible for her death.

Thousands poured out to the streets of Palestine, in commemoration vigils and protests. Two days later, on May 13, after Shireen’s body was transferred from Ramallah to Jerusalem, funeral processions began. Bereaved Palestinians carried her casket through the streets of Jerusalem, and were beaten and brutalized by Israeli soldiers. The pallbearers struggled to ensure the casket wouldn’t hit the floor. The series of events that followed Shireen’s assassination were a gross reminder of the depths of Palestinian dehumanization. Yet again, the Palestinian dead were denied their right to bodily integrity. The living were denied the space and time to bury our dead, shed our tears, and offer our condolences in peace. Even in moments of immense collective despair we are denied our right to collective grief.

There are several reasons Shireen’s assassination has scorched the heart of Palestinians worldwide, kicking up a form of grief akin to the intimate experience of losing a loved one. Before we all had immediate access to news that the social media era brought on, Shireen was on the front lines, covering unfolding developments in Palestine such as the Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000). Her coverage since then had been guided by professional integrity, honesty, and a relentless will to tell a story that global media outlets were trying to bury. This earned her trust from everyday Palestinians which is critical for a people who have experienced endless forms of betrayal and abandonment.

Her coverage has long given Palestinians a sense of steadiness and certainty, through conditions of duress, destabilization and impermanence. Her signature coverage sign-off, “Shireen Abu Aqleh, Al Jazeera, Occupied Palestine,” became a signifier of the credibility of the story which Palestinians banked on. Shireen was familiar and trustworthy. Attesting to how Palestinians felt an intimate bond with Shireen, eyewitness of the shooting and journalist Shatha Hanaysha commented:

I heard a person saying that he “grew up with Shireen.” We all did. We all lived with Shireen because she was in all of our houses since she joined Al-Jazeera in 1997. She left a mark in our hearts, in all Palestinian hearts.

For many Palestinians, Shireen was family and home: steady, stable, and constant. Her death, therefore, is a reminder of the loss of family and home, as well as the security they provide. It should be understood as a reliving of the Nakba of 1948 and its repertoire of violence, which effaces any sense of trust in permanence.

For many Palestinians, Shireen was family and home: steady, stable, and constant. Her death, therefore, is a reminder of the loss of family and home, as well as the security they provide.

Shireen’s murder took place just days before Palestinians were set to commemorate the Nakba: our collective experience of ongoing dispossession and military occupation that has now lasted seventy-four years. The timing has therefore made Shireen’s martyrdom an embodiment of a larger systematic condition Palestinians continue to survive and resist, which also conditions the direct and intimate forms of pain and subjugation we have all experienced. Her loss demonstrates the relationship between structural violence and the intimate ways Palestinians experience it.

Testament to this systematic design of death and destruction, the same day Shireen was martyred, eighteen year old Thaer Musalt Al-Yazuri was killed with a shot to the heart in the Ramallah outskirt of Al-Bireh while in the early morning hours of May 15, 2022, and Abd Al-Rahim Yousef Kokash, a Palestinian teen from Ureif just south of Nablus, was kidnapped by a guard at the Yitzhar Settlement. Twenty-three year old Walid al-Sharif, who was shot with a rubber-coated bullet during the Israeli attack on the Al Aqsa Mosque on April 22nd, suffered a coma and was in critical condition until his death. On May 16th, Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinians at his funeral procession, injuring over 71 people. Far from an aberration, these cases demonstrate the consistency of Israeli killing sprees and captivity which have become quintessential characteristics of the Palestinian catastrophe since 1948.

Each year, around the time of the Nakba anniversary, Palestinians experience an uptick in Israeli state and settler-vigilante violence. Shireen’s assassination took place the morning of May 11, 2022, which also marks the one-year anniversary since the 2021 Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, and simultaneous attacks on worshippers at Al-Aqsa Compound, and the attempted forced expulsions of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and other parts of Palestine. Rather than commemorating the historic moment of collective insurgency that classified May of 2021 as the “Unity Intifada,” a period of tremendous agency, resilience, and worldwide dissent, Palestinians were left to contend with yet another catastrophe. Placing celebration of triumph aside, once again, Palestinians were forced into another state of mourning.

The psychic challenge Palestinians experience when we mourn our dead is that it is often compounded with the unresolved grief over many other losses. For many Palestinians today, Shireen’s martyrdom is triggering grief of other losses that we could never quite get past. Most notably, Shireen was violently murdered outside of the Jenin refugee camp which she has spent over twenty years covering as a site that has borne the brunt of egregious Zionist incursions, sieges and war crimes, such as the 2002 Jenin massacre. Until today, the international community has denied Palestinians the dignity of acknowledging the events of 2002 as a massacre: many of the dead have not been properly laid to rest, and their loved ones cannot reconcile such tremendous loss as a result.

Despite the harrowing sorrow that resides in the Jenin camp, it has also served as a site that has sustained profound displays of steadfastness and resistance in the face of such assaults: just last year Palestinians celebrated the triumph of the Jenin 6 prison break from the Gilboa High Security prison. It is precisely this tenacious dedication to life and liberation that has made Jenin a target: just two days after Shireen was assassinated, Israeli soldiers raided the camp, arrested senior Palestinian leaders, and fired live ammunition which injured 13, among them Al Aqsa Brigades leader Dawoud Zubeidi–whose brother Zacharia was among the Jenin 6 Prisoners –and who later died in Israeli custody on the morning of May 15, 2022.

Shireen’s longstanding coverage of Jenin demonstrates the integrity of her journalism and her commitment to the everyday people of the places she had reported on, understanding that the violence does not settle when other news agencies decide the story is not worthy. Her coverage of Jenin was guided by a deep sense of reciprocity and appreciation for the lessons of liberation its residents shared with her as well:

To me, Jenin is not a one ephemeral story in my career or even in my personal life. It is the city that can raise my morale and help me fly. It embodies the Palestinian spirit that sometimes trembles and falls but, beyond all expectations, rises to pursue its flights and dreams. And this has been my experience as a journalist; the moment I’m physically exhausted and mentally drained, I’m faced with a new, surprising legend. It might emerge from a small opening, or from a tunnel dug underground.

Each day, more land is lost, and more life taken. This is to say, we certainly have plenty to grieve. And still, we muster up the courage, the conviction, and the readiness to fight life and limb, because we understand that there resides a future for which a different present must be made.

Jenin locals cherished her active presence over the course of two decades and recognized the sense of responsibility she brought to her work. This is crucial precisely because Palestine and the Palestinians have been subject to an overload of academic and journalistic study, much of it extractive and pejorative. Shireen was more than a journalist; she was an integral part of families and communities. As a Jenin camp resident put it,

[Shireen] covered the Jenin battle [of 2002], from the first day through the last, and she was among those searching for the martyrs, without us even being able to provide her a bottle of water. May God have mercy on her. I heard the news this morning and was devastated. She had once helped me search for my own children. I have lost it, I can’t even speak, I can’t.

There are other reasons the death of Shireen has struck a nerve for Palestinians globally which might not be evident at first glance for those who are not intimately acquainted with what it means to grieve through conditions of forced expulsion and captivity. In the post-Oslo Accords context, Palestine has been reduced to fragmented geographies separated by a Zionist military apparatus of security fences, concrete walls, roadblocks, checkpoints, settler only roads, sieges, and militarized borders. Shireen’s reporting has thus served as a connector of various Palestinian geographies and constituencies for all of us separated from our homeland because of a protracted condition of refugeehood and exile and for those of us living in our homeland under a carceral regime of containment and captivity which restricts our mobility.

By allowing us to follow news of death and disaster as well as resistance across all parts of our homeland, Shireen has served as an embodied unifier of Palestinian shattered landscapes and constituencies reminding us of the wholeness of our peoplehood and continuities of our land. She had acknowledged the pain Palestinians experience because of the colonial architectures restrictions on Palestinian mobility, most notebly in her hometown, the sacred city of Jerusalem:

I am the daughter of Jerusalem, and quite frankly Jerusalem is a sad place because the children of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and our people outside Palestine cannot reach it. Jerusalem is suffocated, so when you see mobility and life outside of Bab el-Amoud [Jerusalem’s once-bustling Damascus Gate], it warms the heart because their goal is to empty us of this area.

As a people who are still waging an anti-colonial struggle which has now lasted over seven decades, Palestinians are often required to place our emotional worlds to the side to respond to the bare-bones material realities of life under military occupation and exile. Our bodies, lands, and homes are always under attack, forcing us to think, feel, and act in a context of emergency and out of a sense of urgency. There is no space for the faint of heart. There is no space for a margin of error. There is simply no time to squander lest more land and life be stolen. In this state of emergency, existence is characterized by perpetual crisis. Palestinians have not been given the time and space to grieve all that has been forcibly taken from us and all that we continue to endure.

So many phases of our history have come and gone. Our honorable leaders have been imprisoned or assassinated. Our people continue to survive a renewal of exoduses, sieges, and incursions. Many resistance methods and countless models of organized political dissent have been decimated. Each day, more land is lost, and more life taken. This is to say, we certainly have plenty to grieve. And still, we muster up the courage, the conviction, and the readiness to fight life and limb, because we understand that there resides a future for which a different present must be made. In doing so, we count on the right to tell our story, as a technology of resistance and becoming that our occupiers, no matter how deeply they try, cannot take away from us. We tell our stories as an act of perseverance because we know that while our colonizers’ military might is larger than ours, it is we who have control over our own narratives and the moral integrity of our collective story.

We are collectively grieving Shireen because she was a symbol that reconciled the scattering of our lands and people; a force that tethered us to one another, our past, present and future. We are collectively grieving for Shireen because she was family and home.

Though she always showed up with humility and grace, Shireen also knew the power she held as a communicator of the Palestinian story. She once stated,

I chose journalism to be close to people. It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I can bring their [Palestinians’] voices to the world.

Inside the homeland and in exile globally, the power of narrative is something we Palestinians hold on to as one of the last, and perhaps most essential, mechanisms to combat settler-colonial erasure. We tell of Palestine and the Palestinians to reverse our elimination from world maps, historic registrars, archives, and discursive regimes. We rely on Palestinian stories, voices, and narratives to make alternative meanings in a world where we are censored, criminalized, and quite literally expunged. Defining our struggle as we experience it is a way to restore humanity to ourselves, and to shield our minds and souls from the colonial violence that has ravaged our lands and homes. In a world where we are where we are shadow-banned and censored for speaking our truth, where we are villainized, incarcerated, and punished for speaking out against the violence we are constantly subjected to, and blamed for our own pain, Shireen’s power as a journalist who told Palestine from the vantage point of the Palestinians, was immeasurable. She was, indeed, the voice of Palestine: relentless, steadfast, refusing to disappear quietly, or surrender under subjugation.

In these last seven decades, Palestinians have had to mourn and grieve various forms of loss: a robbed nation, lost land and loved ones, stolen possessions and looted resources, homes shorn to rubble and harvests burnt to ash, collapsed institutional history, and political betrayals. What so many of us continue to hold to carry us through such catastrophe is a fervent commitment to Palestinian truth and the hope that it might anchor our liberation. The pain we feel burying Shireen this week on the seventy-fourth anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba is not only the grief of the endless attacks on our material worlds, but the ruthless war against our truth, stories, narratives, and voices. Herein lies the painful reminder that Israel has murdered 50 Palestinian journalists since the year 2000.

Shireen’s life and legacy serves as an invitation to lovers of freedom globally to understand the depths of Palestinian grief in more intimate ways. It is painful to be forcibly stripped of land and life. It is more painful to lose the right to grieve it, and the ability to tell the story as part of that collective healing journey. The collective tears spilled this week, amount to the millions of olive trees upended from our lands, refugees still denied return home, lives stolen and prisoners tortured, homes destroyed, and the countless moments we have been forced to put our grief aside in order continue fighting for our material lives. On this seventy-fourth anniversary of the Nakba, we Palestinians are not grieving the past but rather the inability to be given the time and space to grieve at all. We are not only grieving the material loss we have and continue to endure, but the ongoing assault on and assassination of our words and processes of telling our truth.

We are collectively grieving Shireen because she was a symbol that reconciled the scattering of our lands and people; a force that tethered us to one another, our past, present and future. We are collectively grieving for Shireen because she was family and home. In her honor, and for what she represented to all of us, this year’s Nakba commemorations and protests also include a powerful intentional practice of collective grieving. Because even as the time and space for grief has been denied to us by our colonizers, as the attacks on Shireen’s funeral procession evidenced, we Palestinians know that we need it to repair our broken hearts. Shireen has given us the gift of recognizing collective grieving as a political act of defiance rather than a sign of weakness. We have reached a threshold where there resides no shame in a defiant public expression of vulnerability that will be practiced despite what is allowed or demanded of us. We know that Shireen is well worth our tears. We bury her with them, accompanied by a lasting-promise that we will see freedom.

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HELLO, COMRADE

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