Shireen Abu Akleh, killed Wednesday while covering clashes in the West Bank between the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen, was a veteran journalist and among Arab media’s most prominent figures.
Abu Akleh, 51, was born in Jerusalem. Carrying both a Jerusalem residency card and an American passport, she began working for Al Jazeera in 1997 and regularly reported on camera from across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Her position as an Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent in Jerusalem made her a household name and a familiar face for tens of millions of viewers around the Arab world.
“I chose to become a journalist to be close to people. It may not be easy to change reality, but I was at least able to bring their voice to the world,” Abu Akleh said in a video taped for the Qatari channel’s 25th anniversary.
She was born in East Jerusalem to a Palestinian Christian family. Her mother was born in West Jerusalem, before the creation of Israel in 1948, and her father was from Bethlehem, in the West Bank.
In an interview shortly before her death, Abu Akleh, who was also a US citizen, described herself as a “product of Jerusalem,” with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shaping much of her life.
She attended secondary school in East Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina, then matriculated at the Jordan University of Science and Technology to study architecture. She later transferred to Yarmouk University in Jordan from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism.
Abu Akleh graduated from university the year the Oslo peace accords were signed and then joined the nascent Voice of Palestine radio, before switching to Al Jazeera in 1997, just a year after the network launched, and went on to become an iconic personality in Arab media.
Her prominence grew through her coverage of the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, as well as Israeli politics. She also covered five conflicts between Israel and Gaza and the Lebanon war in 2006.
In a sign of her importance to Palestinian audiences, flowers were placed on the side of the road by West Bank residents as the vehicle carrying her body moved towards Nablus, where an autopsy was scheduled before her burial in Jerusalem.
Her name trended across Twitter in Arabic on Wednesday, setting social media alight with support for the Palestinians, and her image was projected over the main square in the West Bank city of Ramallah as mourners flooded the Al Jazeera offices there and her family home in East Jerusalem.
In the hours after her death, young Palestinians described Abu Akleh as an inspiration, especially to women.
“She never tired,” Al Jazeera senior international correspondent Hoda Abdel-Hamid told AFP by phone from Ukraine. “She was always there whenever anything happened.”
Senior Al Jazeera journalist Dima Khatib tweeted that Abu Akleh was “one of the first Arab women war correspondents in the late 1990s when the traditional role of women was to present from the television studio.”
“Shireen was a pioneer in a generation that broke stereotypical gender roles in TV journalism,” Khatib said.
In a recent interview, Abu Akleh said she was often afraid while reporting but made sure to avoid unnecessary risk.
“I don’t throw myself at death,” she told an outlet in the West Bank city of Nablus. “I search for a safe place to stand and how to protect my crew before worrying about the footage.”
Abu Akleh had US citizenship and often visited America during the summer months, but lived in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and her exact relationship to the US was not immediately clear. She leaves behind a brother and her parents.
Last year, Abu Akleh wrote in the publication This Week in Palestine that Jenin, the place where she died, was not just “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,” she said.
Abu Akleh was shot in the head during a firefight between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in the restive West Bank city. The Palestinians have blamed Israel for the killing, and Israeli officials have said Palestinian gunmen may have fired the fatal shot.
It had started as another routine assignment for Abu Akleh. She’d emailed colleagues that she was heading to the Jenin refugee camp to check on reports of an Israeli military raid.
“I will bring you the news as soon as the picture becomes clear,” she wrote.