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Israeli soldiers aim at Palestinian protesters during a demonstration against Israeli settlements near the West Bank city of Nablus, September 2nd, 2022.
September 13th, 2022
Last Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) concluded its long-awaited operational investigation into the killing of venerated Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot while covering an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin in May. Having initially claimed—despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary—that a Palestinian militant likely killed Abu Akleh, Israel’s army admitted that there was a “high possibility” that an Israeli soldier had fired the shot.
Representatives from the US Department of State welcomed “Israel’s review of this tragic incident” while also urging the country to “closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagement.” The department called for “accountability,” including the institution of new procedures “to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.” In response, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that “no one will dictate our rules of engagement to us, when we are the ones fighting for our lives,” while Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that the army “chief of staff, and he alone, determines and will continue to determine the open-fire policies.”
According to experts on the Israeli military, even a change to the open-fire regulations might do little to prevent Israeli soldiers from killing Palestinian civilians. Interviews with Israeli soldiers conducted by Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli army veterans who expose the abuses of occupation, reveal that even the existing limits on the use of live fire are often ignored by army commanders and rank-and-file soldiers. “It’s quite rare that [the soldiers themselves] see the document of the open-fire regulations,” said Ron Zaidel, chief research officer for Breaking the Silence, “and the way the commander explains the regulation is not always exactly as written. In this gap, we can see many of the problems.” Zaidel cited open-fire protocols prohibiting the shooting of children and women as an example, explaining that commanders sometimes tell their soldiers, “‘You can fire on children if they’re over 14.’”
The open-fire protocols themselves are classified, but some details have been made public over the years. In 2012, in response to a report by the human rights group B’Tselem on Israeli repression of Palestinian protests, the IDF said soldiers are permitted to use live fire in the West Bank only to “negate an actual and immediate threat to life, as the last option in the procedures for stopping a suspect, as well as in certain circumstances to contend with the threat to life posed during violent riots.” But Israel’s expansive use of open fire has consistently deviated from these protocols. In a 2014 report, Amnesty International recorded the routine use of live ammunition at West Bank demonstrations, including against civilians who were throwing stones hundreds of meters away from heavily protected soldiers. The report charged Israeli forces with using “excessive, often lethal, force against Palestinians who pose no threat to their lives or the lives of others.”
Statements from Israeli politicians such as Members of Knesset Avigdor Lieberman, Naaveh Booker, and Bezalel Smotrich have encouraged the army’s liberal use of fire. In 2017, Human Rights Watch criticized these politicians, among others, for “encouraging Israeli soldiers and police to kill Palestinians they suspect of attacking Israelis even when they are no longer a threat” to the lives of security forces or Israeli civilians.
In December 2021, Israeli news outlets reported new, looser rules of engagement that seemed to move closer to soldiers’ conduct in practice. The new rules permit soldiers to fire at Palestinian civilians who throw rocks or fire bombs, even if they have ceased to do so and are fleeing by the time soldiers shoot at them. (The open fire regulations are much looser in Gaza; during the 2018 Great March of Return protests in Gaza, soldiers were allowed to use live fire against anyone who merely approached or damaged the fence separating Gaza from Israel.)
In the killing of Abu Akleh, however, the IDF appears to have violated even its own permissive policies. According to an August report in Axios by Israeli reporter Barak Ravid, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Gantz that, in the Abu Akleh incident, he thought that “either the rules of engagement weren’t followed or they need to be reviewed if an Israeli soldier shot Abu Akleh while she wore a bulletproof vest that was marked ‘press.’”
But according to last week’s IDF report, the soldier who likely shot Abu Akleh did follow the rules of engagement. Abu Akleh was hit “accidently,” the report claimed, while the soldier was engaged in a firefight with Palestinian militants in Jenin “in which life-risking, widespread and indiscriminate shots were fired toward IDF soldiers.” However, investigations by human rights groups and news outlets have shown that there was no firefight in the moments leading up to the killing of Abu Akleh. A live TikTok video by a Palestinian in Jenin that captured the seven minutes before Abu Akleh was shot “shows that the scene was quiet,” B’Tselem found. Despite this, six shots were fired at a group of Palestinian journalists clearly marked as press, injuring one in the shoulder and hitting Abu Akleh in the back of her head. “There’s nothing in the protocol [on the use of live-fire] that justifies the shooting,” said Zaidel. “What made him think he could shoot?”
B’Tselem spokesperson Dror Sadot described “a sense of impunity that makes the soldier in the field feel free to shoot even if they’re not in a life-threatening situation.” “Even if they kill a very known and important journalist that has US citizenship,” she said, soldiers know that no one will be held accountable. The Israeli army has said it will not be pursuing criminal charges against the soldier who killed Abu Akleh.
As the dispute between Israel and the US over the IDF’s open-fire regulations plays out, the Abu Akleh family continues to demand that the US do more to ensure justice for the slain journalist. “Saying that for there to be accountability, they need to change the policies—that is not enough,” said Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen’s niece. “That doesn’t hold the Israeli soldier who killed her accountable. It falls short.”
On September 12th, Palestinian journalist Lama Ghosheh was brought to a hearing in a Jerusalem court following her arrest by Israeli forces. “I want to see my kids,” she said. Ghosheh was arrested in her home in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem last week in front of her two small children. She was detained because of 11 recent social media posts that are said to show support for the Palestinian armed struggle against the occupation. Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.
The US Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into allegations of antisemitism at the University of Vermont. The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by the Louis D. Brandeis Center, an Israel advocacy group founded and chaired by former Trump administration official Kenneth Marcus. (Marcus pushed for the former president to sign an executive order that cited criticisms of Israel as examples of antisemitism.) The Center has accused a University of Vermont sexual assault survivors group of antisemitism based on its comment that Zionist students would be blocked on social media. Other charges include a book club allegedly blocking Zionist students from becoming members, and a teaching assistant threatening to lower the grades of supporters of Israel. In a separate complaint filed in August, two former students at the State University of New York at New Paltz claimed that a sexual assault awareness group allegedly excluding them from joining because they were Zionists constituted discrimination on the basis of ethnic and national origin.
Last week, Israeli authorities delayed a hearing on plans to build housing in the so-called E1 settlement area located within the boundaries of the East Jerusalem settlement of Maale Adumim. In July, another planned hearing on the settlement was called off because of White House pressure. Plans to build in E1 draw significant attention because American officials and settlement experts see it as fatal to the prospects for a future Palestinian state. According to Peace Now, the Israeli anti-settlement group, building settlements in E1 would “divide the West Bank into two—a northern and a southern region” and prevent “the development of the central Ramallah-East Jerusalem-Bethlehem metropolis in the West Bank.” Speaking to the group Americans for Peace Now in March, US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said, “E1 was a disaster, and explained he pushed hard against plans to build there. But in other areas of the occupied territories, Israel continues to push for the expansion of settlements built on Palestinian land, which are widely considered illegal under international law. According to a report in Haaretz published yesterday, Israeli authorities are promoting a plan that would double the size of the settlement of Har Gilo, located south of Jerusalem. If the new settlement units are completed, the Palestinian village of al-Walaja will be fully encircled by Israeli-built fences and Israel’s separation wall.
On Thursday, Google and Amazon workers gathered in front of Google’s offices in four different cities to protest the technology companies’ signing of a $1.2 billion cloud computer contract with Israel. According to documents reviewed by The Intercept, Google is offering Israel machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities as part of a deal with the Israeli government. Google says the deal will assist Israeli civilian ministries that deal with finance, healthcare, transportation, and education, but workers worry that these tools could assist Israel’s ability to surveil Palestinians. “The technology our companies have contracted to build,” a group of Amazon and Google workers wrote in a letter published in The Guardian last October, “will make the systematic discrimination and displacement carried out by the Israeli military and government even crueler and deadlier for Palestinians.” Thursday’s protests came during the same week that Ariel Koren, a Google employee who protested the company’s deal with Israel, left her job following Google’s alleged retaliation. Koren was a leader in the internal organizing against Google and Amazon’s contract with Israel, and she says that because of her role in opposing the deal, Google presented her with an ultimatum: move to Brazil to continue working with Google, or lose the job. Google denies retaliating against Koren, and according to a New York Times report, an investigation of the case by the National Labor Relations Board found no wrongdoing by the company.
Last Tuesday, Israeli forces killed a 29-year-old man named Mohammed Saabaneh and wounded 16 others during a large raid in the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank. The soldiers invaded Jenin to blow up the house of Raad Hazem, a man who carried out a shooting attack at a Tel Aviv bar in April, killing three Israelis. Human rights organizations have called on Israel to stop its practice of demolishing the homes of alleged attackers, saying that such a practice of collective punishment harms people with no involvement in the crime in question. Since a wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis starting in March, Jenin has been subject to repeated Israeli army raids, resulting in the deaths of over 30 Palestinians.
Last Monday, a German court ruled that news outlet Deutsche Welle must re-hire Palestinian Jordanian journalist Farah Maraqa. Maraqa was one of seven journalists to be fired earlier this year by the German-funded Deutsche Welle for alleged antisemitism, though in at least two of the cases, the allegations referred to criticism of Israel. According to +972 Magazine, earlier this month Deutsche Welle updated its workplace code of conduct to require all employees to “support the right of Israel to exist” or else face consequences, including dismissal. “It is a relief that the judge ruled in Farah’s favor and held Deutsche Welle accountable for this illegal dismissal,” said Giovanni Fassina, Director of the European Legal Support Center, which provided legal support for Maraqa. “We hope this sends a clear message that they should stop their censorship practices.” In July, a German court found that Deutsche Welle’s firing of Maram Salem, another Palestinian journalist at the outlet, was unlawful.