In early 1987, on the eve of the first Palestinian intifada, Shireen Abu Aqleh left her family home in East Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan valley to begin university in Amman. It was a familiar journey for a young Palestinian with her life ahead of her: leaving her homeland for an education and to find her place in the world.
Abu Aqleh’s first career choice – architecture – was fleeting. After a semester she chose journalism, and transferred to a vocation that would build her name and establish understandings across the Arab world during an acclaimed 25-year career, which ended by the side of a West Bank road earlier this month as she covered an Israeli raid.
By the time of her death, at the age of 51, the journalist had come to be known as the voice of the Palestinian conflict. Reporting for Al Jazeera for most of that time, she had become a go-to voice, an advocate for the people of Gaza and the West Bank, and the Palestinians scattered across the region and beyond.
From her graduation at Yarmouk University, through her return to the East Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina – where she grew up, the daughter of Louli and Nasri Abu Aqleh, and went to Rosary Sisters high school – Abu Aqleh had found her calling. Journalism would allow her to bring the stories of her people to the world and it would give her a central role in the greatest cause of her life.
In the first instance, so too would development work. After a brief spell with UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestinian refugees) in the early 1990s, Abu Aqleh began reporting with the radio station Voice of Palestine, where she honed her skills as a broadcast journalist.
By then the seething rage of the uprising had given way to the Oslo peace process. Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres would win the 1994 Nobel peace prize and, for a while at least, a hint of optimism crept into a conflict that had held the region in its grip for decades. For many in the occupied territories it would remain a false dawn. And from the time Abu Aqleh moved to Al Jazeera in 1997, she found herself at the forefront of a story that became ever more bitterly contested and increasingly difficult to cover.
She quickly learned that the relentless scrutiny of vested interests came with the territory. The conflict was thrashed out and defined as much on television screens and in newspapers as it was in the streets of the occupied territories and Israel. Strident criticism became a constant companion to Abu Aqleh’s reporting, as it did to others who devoted their careers to trying to make sense of the maddening and opaque ways of the Middle East, where journalism and advocacy often dance an awkward tango.
Abu Aqleh’s answer to critics was simple and effective. She was a field reporter, who allowed the voices of the people to tell their stories; and in doing so speak to a bigger picture, which made often complex themes digestible for viewers.
By the time of the second intifada, she had become a household name far beyond her homeland. She was known as a reporter who told stories with soul, and who never gave up on a beat that had lost steam and viewers as hopes of a two-state solution were replaced by grinding stalemate amid outbursts of savage violence.
As the capacity of Palestinian leaders to tell their stories of the conflict waned, Abu Aqleh took on a quasi-public diplomacy role, articulating what officials often failed to get across. “She was an attraction for Palestinians, because she was saying what we wanted to say and we didn’t know how to say it,” said her friend, the activist Muzna Shihabi. “She was on good terms with everyone. From the refugee camp to the Palestinian Authority to regular people in Ramallah.”
As an East Jerusalem resident, Abu Aqleh could move between Israel and the West Bank, seeing the best and worst of two very different societies. She sometimes met Israeli officials, but her commitment remained undeniably to telling the stories of her people. Abu Aqleh had told friends that she longed to cover the freedom of Palestinian prisoners serving time in Israel and the reunification of the Palestinian political blocs, Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Fatah, which holds sway in the West Bank. Neither side has constructively engaged with the other since a brief civil war in Gaza in 2007.
Abu Aqleh was a staunch Palestinian nationalist. As the model for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a two-state solution, slipped further away in recent years, her sense of identity solidified. She remained strongly opposed to violence and committed to telling stories in ways that people could connect with. But the strain of the conflict had left her fatigued.
On the morning of 11 May, Abu Aqleh stood by a roadside wearing her flak jacket, clearly marked “press”, and a helmet. Gunfire crackled nearby. And then came a burst of fire directed at her and a colleague. Her employers accuse Israeli forces of firing the fatal shot. Israeli officials suggest Palestinian gunmen may have instead been responsible. In life and in death Abu Aqleh remained central to the war of narrative.
She is survived by her brother, Tony.
• Shireen Abu Aqleh, journalist, born 13 April 1971; died 11 May 2022