Excited about an upcoming vacation, Najwan Simri texted into the early hours of May 11 with her friend Shireen Abu Akleh.
They had weekend plans for a trip to Istanbul, Turkey, taking in the sights and some shopping.
The two friends, who met while working for the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, spoke about Akleh’s reporting on unrest in Jenin and their plans for a break. Before they ended their chat, around 3 a.m., Akleh texted, “Nougat, remind me to tell you something important when I see you,” she said, using a nickname for Simri.
“I told her, ‘Come on, tell me now!’ ” Simri told VOA. But Akleh refused. Now, Simri said, “I will never know what that important thing was.”
By the time Simri woke later that morning, Akleh was dead. The Al Jazeera journalist — a household name for her coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — was shot as she covered an Israeli security forces raid in the West Bank city of Jenin.
The killing of the 51-year-old Palestinian American sparked international condemnation, with leaders from the United States, the United Nations, Britain and the Vatican issuing statements.
Initial investigations by Palestinian authorities and several independent groups, who spoke with witnesses and reviewed video, say it appears a sniper killed Akleh.
Palestinian authorities say Israeli soldiers deliberately targeted the journalist.
Israel says the circumstances remain unclear. VOA contacted spokespeople for the Israeli government and military but has received no response.
Journalists at risk
The killing of such a high-profile journalist underscores the dangers for media covering clashes and unrest in the region. Media rights groups say Israeli forces arbitrarily detain or attack journalists, and that it is rare for anyone to be held accountable.
“Palestinian journalists are systematically subjected to violence as a result of their coverage of events in the West Bank,” media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in its annual report, released just a week before Akleh’s death.
For Simri, those responsible for her friend’s death must be held accountable.
“With one bullet, they killed so many persons that I loved in Shireen,” she said.
‘Source of security’
Akleh and Simri’s friendship began in 2003, when Simri joined Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau, where Akleh had worked since the late 1990s.
“We immediately clicked, and our relationship grew closer, to a point that other colleagues in the office would jokingly call us ‘the twins,’ ” Simri said.
Originally from the northern region of Galilee, Simri moved to Jerusalem in 2000 to attend college.
“Shireen was my source of security in this world,” she said. “My family and childhood friends and everyone I knew were living up north, so she became a mother when I needed one. A sister when I needed one. A friend when I needed one. We would see each other at work, and then we would probably talk on the phone more than 10 times a day.”
After hearing that Akleh had been killed, Simri went to the hospital where her friend’s body had been taken.
“I kept talking to her, begging her to wake up,” Simri said.
When she returned home, she found her son crying.
“He asked me, ‘Mom, are they going to do the same to you?’ ”
Pioneering war reporter
Born in Jerusalem to a Catholic family, Akleh moved to the United States in the early 1990s, only to return to the Middle East after obtaining her U.S. citizenship.
She was considered one of the first female journalists in the Arab world to cover war. Her journalism came to prominence in 2000 during the second Palestinian uprising against Israel, known as intifada.
“Shireen was a household name among Palestinians and throughout the Arab world because her reporting on what’s been happening here was original, and it touched the human soul,” her brother, Anton Abu Akleh, told VOA from Jerusalem.
“Above all, she was deeply dedicated to her profession. She was loyal to her homeland and to the Palestinian cause. She perfectly used journalism as a platform to help other people and highlight their plights,” he said.
Abu Akleh, who works for the United Nations in Somalia, had been in Jerusalem to visit his sister and family.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday said he spoke with the family, offering condolences and expressing “the need to have an immediate and credible investigation.”
Abu Akleh described the call as “reassuring,” but said, “I have not seen anything tangible from the U.S. government yet. Shireen was a U.S. citizen, and the United States, a country that respects its citizens, has a responsibility to get to the bottom of this and find out who was responsible for the killing of my sister.”
The family is consulting with legal advisers about next steps, including whether to sue Israel in the U.S.
Palestinian journalists targeted
Akleh’s death came just a few weeks after media rights groups filed a lawsuit with the International Criminal Court alleging “systematic targeting of Palestinian journalists.”
The complaint, filed by groups including the International Federation of Journalists, cites attacks on journalists clearly marked with “Press” identification during clashes and protests, and the bombing in May 2021 of a building housing news networks, including Al Jazeera and The Associated Press.
“At least 46 journalists have been killed [in the region] since 2000, and no one has been held to account,” the complaint said.
Palestinian officials say that based on their initial investigation into Akleh’s death, she was killed by Israeli fire.
“The preliminary report from the forensic team of the general prosecution’s office at the Palestinian Authority said that the source of the shooting was the Israeli occupation forces,” said Mohammed al-Shalaldeh, justice minister of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel has said the circumstances are unclear and that the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to share evidence means Israeli officials can’t complete an investigation.
Palestinian officials have so far refused to share evidence with the Israelis, citing distrust. They have also refused calls from the Israeli government for a joint investigation.
Speaking with VOA from Ramallah in the West Bank, al-Shalaldeh said that Palestinian authorities have the bullet.
“It will be used as major evidence and a determining one in the final result of the investigation,” he said.
On Thursday, Israeli military police said no investigation would be opened because there was no suspicion of a criminal act, according to Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper.
Akiva Eldar, an Israeli political analyst who writes for Haaretz, said an Israeli investigation might not have been helpful.
“According to Israeli law, the occupied territories are still considered a war zone, and in a war zone, anything could happen,” he told VOA. “With Shireen’s death, in the best case, the military will take internal disciplinary action or send someone to jail for a few months.”
Eldar added that he didn’t believe the Israeli government has a policy to target journalists.
Still, Akleh’s family and friends are determined to push for answers and justice.
“I’m not going to lose hope,” Simri said. “The person who killed Shireen must be held accountable. I really wish that Shireen’s blood will be a turning point in our [Palestinians’] struggle for freedom.”