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Niece of Slain Al Jazeera Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on Justice for Her Family

12 minute read

Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh was a household name among Palestinians long before her killing on May 11. In the weeks since her aunt’s death, Lina Abu Akleh has found herself advocating for justice. U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Israel Wednesday amid mounting pressure from congressional Democrats, human rights groups, and Shireen’s family for a full investigation and accountability over her death. (Shireen held American and Palestinian citizenship.) “We will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death and will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world,” Biden said Friday during his visit to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A U.S. State Department press release on July 4 said that a government analysis concluded that “gunfire from IDF [Israel Defense Forces] positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh” and that there was “no reason to believe that this was intentional.” The analysis has been criticized by Palestinians and rights groups. Previous investigations by news outlets and a U.N. inquiry separately concluded that an Israeli soldier likely fired the bullet that killed Shireen and contradicted Israeli government accounts that there was active combat near her in the moments leading up to her death.

Read more: The Problems With Israel’s Version of the Killing of Reporter Shireen Abu Akleh

Shireen’s family had sent Biden a letter requesting that he meet them during his trip to the Palestinian territories, expressing disappointment in the U.S. response, and asking to direct the Department of Justice to “take action on Shireen’s extrajudicial killing.”

TIME spoke with Lina amid Biden’s July 13-16 Middle East trip about her memories of Shireen, what accountability means for her family, and her take on the U.S. response to her killing.

Can you tell me about your relationship with Shireen? What was she like as an aunt? Are there any particular memories that stand out?

Growing up, I was very close to Shireen. She was like an older sister and second mother to me. We’re a very small family. She was like our best friend. She’s someone who we grew up looking up to as a role model. But at the same time, she was the fun aunt. We would sit with her and she would teach us how to play cards.

Lina Abu Akleh
Lina Abu Akleh and her brother pictured with their aunt, Shireen Abu Akleh, as children.Courtesy of Lina Abu Akleh

Did she have a favorite card game?

Tarneeb [an Arabic trick-taking game involving four players]. A few days before she was killed, I remember she was at home and I was sitting next to her and I was looking at her phone—she was playing tarneeb on her phone. So it’s funny how it went from like literal card games to like a digitized version. And she was still trying to teach me how to play all those years.

Did you ever figure it out?

At some point, I did. I remember I told her I had some friends who were so into it, especially during COVID; she would give me tips: what to do, what cards to use.

Traveling with her was always fun. I used to always help her find the best blazers because she needed to look professional when she was reporting. These are the things I’m going to miss. And spending hours watching Netflix.

Which Netflix shows?

She really liked crime shows and murder mysteries, even though she hated anything gory. The last show we watched together was Black Mirror. She really loved that show. She even had this thing where she would skip all the way towards the end so she would know it’s gonna be a happy ending. Everything I’m sharing now is ironic. Her ending wasn’t happy, unfortunately. But in terms of how I remember her, she was a very fun person—not as serious as she appeared on TV.

What does justice and accountability mean for you and your family in terms of Shireen but also more broadly?

For us, accountability is holding the soldier who killed Shireen, and the person who gave the order to kill her, accountable: seeing them get imprisoned. It’s also for the entire system to be held accountable. This is part and parcel of Israel’s occupation policy. The Israeli government needs to be held accountable. And that is justice for Shireen, justice for all other Palestinian journalists who are killed, and justice for all other Palestinians who experience violence in their daily lives.

Reporting in the Palestinian territories has long been dangerous. At least 30 reporters have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2000. How does Shireen’s death fit into this wider context?

It’s important to note that this is not a separate incident. In 2018, the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry released a report stating that Israeli forces target civilians, paramedics, and journalists. Shireen wasn’t the first journalist to be killed. There was another journalist with a very similar case to Shireen in 2003. He was a U.K. citizen, James Miller, who was killed in Rafah, south of Gaza City. The same thing: he was wearing a press vest and a helmet and he was shot in his neck. It’s very unfortunate that in the past there wasn’t accountability. The Israeli government was never held accountable. The military was never held accountable.

Has Shireen being an American citizen made any difference to the situation and the way the U.S. has responded? Should it have made any difference?

It’s important to note that Shireen was a human being regardless of whether she was a U.S. citizen. She was a human being who was killed in a very grotesque, heinous way. But the way the U.S. has been handling the case has been very disappointing. We appreciate all the comfort and solace they’ve shown us from day one. But it’s time to see meaningful action. We were hoping that there would be more engagement and support but unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. She was a U.S. citizen. She was a female journalist. These are important factors. And considering how much the U.S. talks about human rights, press freedom, protection of journalists, especially women, I feel like it hasn’t been applied to Shireen’s case. Shireen shouldn’t be an exception just because she was a Palestinian American. At the end of the day, she was a U.S. citizen. So they have an obligation; they have a duty to hold the Israeli government accountable. But because she’s Palestinian, and she was killed here, I feel that has made a difference in the way the U.S. has handled her murder.

The U.S. State Department analysis said it found no reason to believe that this was intentional. What’s your response?

I was honestly disappointed that they wrote something like that, especially considering the fact that the statement was not based on any evidence. It was merely an analysis or summary of the Israeli government’s narrative. And the fact that they said that it was unintentional makes me wonder: how did they reach that conclusion? We want to have more information about the credibility, about the qualifications of people who conducted this analysis, who wrote the statement.

Lina Abu Akleh and Shireen Abu Akleh
Lina Abu Akleh with her aunt, Shireen, in her office on May 2Courtesy of Lina Abu Akleh

What can you tell us about U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s outreach to your family?

Blinken called us earlier this week. We spoke to him and reiterated our demands and our request to meet the president upon his visit here. We also expressed disappointment regarding the statements. We felt that we were neglected, that we were abandoned. And that’s when he offered his sympathies. He invited us to Washington, D.C. to sit and talk. It’s important for us to engage face to face. It allows us to understand what their next steps are. But at the same time, we’re hoping that we would meet him here in the place where Shireen was born, the place where Shireen was living, and, most importantly, the place where Shireen was killed. This was her home—Jerusalem was her home. She was the daughter of Jerusalem and Palestine was her homeland. So it was very important that we meet here and unfortunately, until this moment, we still haven’t heard back. There was no definite answer as to yes or no with regards to meeting him here so I’m not sure that will happen [Biden and Blinken departed to Saudi Arabia on Friday].

With regards to meeting him at all or meeting him in the Palestinian territories specifically?

With regards to meeting him in Palestine. I’m not sure about D.C. I don’t have any information about that trip yet.

Can you tell me about yourself and your upbringing?

I grew up in Jerusalem in a Palestinian Armenian family. (My mother’s Armenian.) I was always exposed to politics, partly since Shireen was in journalism. I was always inspired by her work. That’s what led me to pursue education and political studies and eventually work in human rights and policy.

I love Jerusalem but growing up here was definitely not easy. I remember having to cross Israeli checkpoints to get to our school and that to me was a very traumatizing experience. It’s not easy. It’s not something you get used to, and you should never get used to it.

I got my Masters in International Studies from the University of San Francisco, and I chose a concentration in human rights, governance, and global justice. Little did I know that I will be using my degrees, my experience, and my expertise to advocate for justice and accountability for Shireen. I never thought I would be speaking to the press. But when you’re put in such situations, you have no option.

Read more: On Biden’s Middle East Trip, Human Rights Aren’t a Priority

What do you hope Shireen’s legacy will be?

Shireen’s legacy is a big one. She stood for truth, peace, and justice. Her voice will continue to resonate in Palestine, in the Arab world, and abroad. She was a human being before she was a journalist. She humanized the Palestinians; she took her time to understand and listen to them because she was also part of that struggle of freedom. She carried all their voices, she entered every single village, city, refugee camp. She’s covered every story from every angle. That was her message: to show the realities of Palestinians on the ground, to show the realities of the occupation and the violence that Palestinians face on a daily basis. She was from the people and for the people. So that’s why we saw tens of thousands of people show up at her funeral and many continue to talk about her.

You grew up watching some of her work, right?

I used to always sit right next to her and watch her work. I would patiently wait for her to go live so I could tell everyone, “shushu is live.” I never called her Shireen. That was my nickname for her. I would patiently wait for her to show up on TV. Last year, in May, during the last war in Gaza, I remember I was stuck in San Francisco because they closed the airport in Tel Aviv, so I couldn’t fly there. That was the only time where Shireen was not replying to my texts. She usually replies to the minute. So that was the only time and I was very worried. So I was glued to the TV. In San Francisco, I would watch her and make sure that she’s okay. And so that was my source of comfort when I used to see her: she’s safe, she’s reporting. She’s being cautious. I grew up watching her and hearing stories from her so I felt like I was part of her entire experience. She would come home and share everything with me, even in her last days.

Shireen Abu Akleh
Shireen Abu Akleh at the baptism of her niece, Lina.Image courtesy of Lina Abu Akleh

It seems like she’s been a really powerful influence in your life.

Yeah, very. She did a news report on the struggle to access water around the Jordan Valley. And she had picked this one specific town. She said, Lina, not a lot of people talk about this. And I was like, you know what—my thesis is going to be about the water issue. It’s not covered as much as it should be. You know, she inspired me a lot. Every direction and every decision I’ve made in my life was very much inspired by her.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think is important to know?

It’s important to also talk about the funeral. I say this all the time that Shireen wasn’t killed once. She was killed twice. Once in Jenin and once in Jerusalem when her funeral was attacked by the Israeli riot police. The way they attacked us was barbaric. They were armed to the teeth; they attacked us, the mourners. But even during that time, I felt Shireen’s voice was still louder.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com