JERUSALEM – Shireen Abu Akleh originally studied architecture but saw no future for herself in this field. So she chose journalism instead and became one of the most well-known Palestinian journalists.
“I chose journalism to be close to the people,” she said in a brief role shared with Al Jazeera, shortly after she was killed by gunfire in the West Bank on Wednesday. “Changing reality may not be easy, but at least I was able to carry her voice out into the world.”
A Palestinian American, Ms. Abu Akleh, 51, was a familiar face on the Al Jazeera network, where she reported for 25 years and made a name for herself amid the violence of the Palestinian uprising known as the second Intifada that rocked Israel and the occupied West Bank from 2000.
She was shot in the head in the West Bank city of Jenin, Al Jazeera and the Palestinian Health Ministry said, blaming Israeli forces for her death. The Israeli military said further Twitter that “Palestinian gunfire” may have been responsible.
Mohammed Daraghmeh, the Ramallah bureau chief of Arabic-language news agency Asharq News, who was a friend of Ms Abu Akleh for many years, said she remained committed to dealing with all issues affecting Palestinians, big and small.
He last spoke to her two days earlier, he said on Wednesday, and told her he didn’t think the events in Jenin were important enough to be covered by a seasoned journalist like her.
“But she left anyway,” he said. “She handled the story the way it should be done.”
It wasn’t the biggest or political stories that most interested Ms Abu Akleh, but the smaller ones that showed how people lived, said Wessam Hammad, a news producer at Al Jazeera who worked with her for 17 years. He said she would see a story where others would not.
“Sometimes I’d say, ‘No, Shireen, forget it, it’s not a big story.'” he said. “But she was always thinking about so many different angles that we could do it and how we could make it a very human and very touching story about Palestinians that no other journalist would ever think of.”
Ms. Abu Akleh was born in Jerusalem to a Catholic family and studied in Jordan, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She spent some time in the United States when she was younger and obtained US citizenship through a maternal family who lived in New Jersey, friends and colleagues said.
Al Jazeera said that after graduating from college, she worked for several media companies, including the Voice of Palestine radio and the Amman Satellite Channel, before joining Al Jazeera in 1997. She soon became a household name among Palestinians and Arabs in the Middle East and inspired many to follow her path.
Her live television coverage and signatures became icons for those who wanted to emulate her, said Dalia Hatuqa, a Palestinian-American journalist and friend of Ms Abu Akleh.
“I know a lot of girls who were basically standing in front of a mirror, holding their hairbrushes and pretending to be Shireen,” Ms. Hatuqa said. “Her presence was so lasting and important.”
Among them was her 27-year-old niece, Lina Abu Akleh. As a young girl, she would take her aunt’s written accounts and recite them into her pink Barbie phone.
“I used to tell her, ‘I don’t know if I have the courage and strength that you have,’ and she said it’s not easy, it’s a very tough job,” said Lina Abu Akleh.
Her death also highlighted the dangers Palestinian journalists face in their work, whether in the occupied West Bank, Gaza or within Israel, she said.
In a 2017 interview with Palestinian TV station An-Najah NBC, she was asked if she was ever afraid of being shot.
“Of course I’m scared,” she says. “At a certain moment you forget that fear. We don’t throw ourselves to death. We go and try to figure out where we can stand and how to protect the team with me before thinking about how I’m going to appear on screen and what I’m going to say.
Palestinian Authority Ambassador to Britain Husam Zomlot called her the “most prominent Palestinian journalist”.
The Abu Akleh family became widely known in Palestinian society through Mrs. Abu Akleh.
“Everyone knows who Shireen is,” said her cousin Fadi Abu Akleh. “Whenever I introduce myself, people ask me, ‘How is Shireen related to you?'”
She lived in Ramallah, the West Bank and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, she lived with her brother and his family, including two nieces and a nephew, to whom she was very devoted, her cousin said.
“She was my best friend, my second mother, my traveling companion,” said Lina Abu Akleh. “She was my everything.”
Their last trip together took them to New York to spend the Christmas holidays with relatives in the United States.
Ms. Abu Akleh recently spent several weeks in the United States and returned to Ramallah about a month ago. But she never seems to have seriously considered living in the United States, Mr Daraghmeh said.
Al Jazeera once sent her to work in the United States. After three months she returned to Ramallah.
“When she came back she said, ‘I can breathe now. Everything in the US is technical and complicated,’” recalls Mr. Daraghmeh. “‘Life is easy here. i love palestine I want to stay here.'”
A state funeral procession will be held in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday, departing from the presidential headquarters and in the presence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the president’s office said.
She will be buried next to her mother in a cemetery in Jerusalem on Friday.
“Shireen was a trailblazer,” said Ms. Hatuqa. “I’m just sad that she won’t be around to continue to lead in this industry.”
King Abdul Rahim reported from Jerusalem, and Ben Hubbard from Doha, Qatar. Error Yazbek contributed reporting from Nazareth, Israel. Kitty Bennett contributed research.