Yellow tape marks bullet holes on a tree and a portrait and flowers create a makeshift memorial at the site where Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 19th, 2022.
(This article originally appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter; subscribe here!)
IN THE TWO WEEKS since the killing of the Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian and a US citizen, while she was on assignment in the West Bank, no independent body has investigated her death. Last week, a letter signed by 57 House Democrats called on the State Department and the FBI to investigate the killing. The letter noted that eyewitnesses of the killing, including two Palestinian reporters, “did not see militants in the area” when Abu Akleh was shot. Those accounts challenged early Israeli claims that “armed Palestinians” killed her and suggested that Israeli soldiers were responsible. According to the letter, Palestinian journalists in the area had alerted the Israeli military to their presence.
The letter represents a rare attempt by US officials to hold Israeli perpetrators of violence accountable. It heavily emphasizes Abu Akleh’s US citizenship, calling upon the State Department to assess whether her killing violated any US laws. “Ms. Abu Akleh was entitled to the full protections afforded to U.S. citizens living abroad,” it said.
Meanwhile, earlier today, CNN and The Associated Press each published separate investigations indicating that the Israeli military shot and killed Abu Akleh. Using audiovisual analysis, eyewitness testimony, and geolocation, CNN said its conclusion “suggest[s] that Abu Akleh was shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.” The AP published a similar finding.
The exceptional circumstances of Abu Akleh’s killing—the fact that she was a journalist and a US citizen, as well as the Israeli police’s documented brutality against mourners at her funeral—compelled members of Congress to advocate accountability for her killers, Matt Duss, the foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, told Jewish Currents. “The killing of Shireen, and then the attack on the funeral, were just so egregious,” Duss said. “The Israeli response was so ridiculous that it’s impossible for members not to respond.” Sanders, among other progressives, called for “an independent investigation into her killing.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for an investigation that would be “thorough” and “objective” but avoided the word “independent,” as did many other Democrats in the House and the Senate.
Given US laws regulating financial assistance to foreign governments that violate basic human rights, a framework is in place to hold accountable the party responsible for killing Abu Akleh. The Leahy Laws, for example, stipulate that the US government cannot financially support foreign security forces that have likely committed “gross violations of human rights.” “US law prohibits US tax dollars contributing to human rights abuses,” Duss said. But the US government, he added, does not consistently apply the laws. When it comes to Israeli violence, “they’re just not enforced.” Duss said that although advocates for Palestinian human rights have “broken open a really important policy debate” about conditioning aid to the Israeli regime, “we have not yet developed the capacity to bring enough pressure to outweigh the political headaches the other side can threaten.”
“The Biden administration’s response has been pretty weak,” a congressional staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told Jewish Currents. “In practice it’s calling for impunity.” (The State Department declined to comment on the record, and the Israeli military did not respond to Jewish Currents’ request for comment.) “We send them $3.8 billion in security money per year. You can say that it’s a tragedy and call for an investigation, but if that assistance is not conditioned or cut, then it’s virtue signaling,” the staffer added.
In the hours after Abu Akleh’s death, Israeli officials deflected criticisms and denied that the Israeli military had killed her. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett suggested that Palestinians could be to blame. Defense Minister Benny Gantz pledged “a full-scale investigation.” The Palestinian Authority opposed the proposed Israeli investigation, pointing to the apparent conflict of interest, while the State Department supported it.
Two days later, Israeli police brutally beat mourners and pallbearers at Abu Akleh’s funeral in occupied East Jerusalem. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US government was “deeply troubled” to see the Israeli police “intruding” on the procession.
Six days after the funeral violence, the Israeli military announced that it would not carry out a criminal investigation of Abu Akleh’s killing; it claimed no crimes had been committed. “In some ways, it’s not surprising,” Khaled Elgindy, director of the Middle East Institute’s program on Palestine and Israeli–Palestinian affairs, told Jewish Currents. “There are many killings that go uninvestigated. The surprising thing is that this particular killing was very high profile; it garnered the attention and condemnation of many governments. Maybe Israel is calling everybody’s bluff. Or maybe they didn’t like what they were already uncovering.”
The Israeli government has nonetheless continued to examine the circumstances of Abu Akleh’s death, saying last week that it “narrowed down the IDF weapon that might be involved.” It called on the Palestinian Authority to turn over the bullet that pierced Abu Akleh.
In response to the Israeli military’s reversal, the State Department “reiterate[d] the administration’s call for a thorough and transparent investigation to determine the circumstances of” the Al Jazeera reporter’s killing.
For its part, the Israeli government may have decided that its interests were best preserved by avoiding an investigation that could come with legal ramifications or expose the regime to deeper criticisms. If they investigated the killing, Elgindy said, “someone might ask, ‘Why do you have snipers? Who are the snipers aimed at? Where were they located?’ There could be all sorts of questions about Israel’s rules of engagement, especially regarding snipers, and that opens a whole Pandora’s box about Israel’s military doctrine that no one wants to scrutinize.”
According to Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Abu Akleh’s killers will be held accountable only if foreign governments strongly intervene and apply pressure on Israel. “Israel is unwilling and unable to investigate itself, and that’s true in every case where Palestinian is killed,” Sadot said. Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed at least 5,944 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since 2008, the first year the United Nations collected such data. (Israel and Hamas have both been accused of committing war crimes.) The Israeli military has killed at least 46 Palestinian journalists since 2000, according to the International Federation of Journalists, an organization that accused Israel of committing war crimes against journalists in a case filed to the International Criminal Court weeks before Abu Akleh’s death.
On Monday, the Palestinian foreign ministry formally requested that the ICC investigate the killing of Abu Akleh. “Israel knows it will have impunity,” Sadot said, “and that’s true until the international community takes action.”