Shireen Abu Akleh's killing: A culture of impunity is the norm in Israel's occupation
The killing of veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh shocked Palestinians and led to an outpouring of grief, but the subsequent whitewashing of Israel’s accountability for her killing held few surprises.
Faced with widespread condemnation after her death, Israel initially resorted to blaming Palestinians for her killing by circulating video footage showing gunmen firing indiscriminately in Jenin.
Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem quickly debunked the Israeli army’s narrative, proving that the video was in a location far from where Abu Akleh was killed, forcing Israeli authorities to backtrack on their claim.
"It was never an understatement to say that international impunity for Israel is the backbone of the occupation"
Senior Israeli army officers then switched to a different but familiar narrative; that a soldier from an elite IDF unit may have ‘accidentally’ shot her, suggesting that there were armed Palestinians in the vicinity of Abu Akleh when soldiers opened fire.
Palestinian eyewitnesses and journalists at the scene reject this. They say that Shireen and her colleagues were clearly identifiable as journalists and were wearing flak jackets and helmets marked PRESS. There were no clashes in the area at the time, they said.
Recent video footage of the last few seconds prior to the incident confirms this. The video shows relative calm in the area, with the Al-Jazeera team, among other people, casually walking around and talking when they were targeted.
In the end, last week Israel’s military announced that it was not planning an investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing on the grounds that there is no suspicion of a criminal act. Case closed.
“Israeli investigations into its own crimes have always been little more than public relations stunts staged for damage control following a crime that caused a massive blow to Israel’s standing among its Western allies, but with no real intentions to enforce accountability,” Muhammad Shehada, from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, told The New Arab.
“But what Israel has found over the years, and especially the past few years, is that no matter how much it escalates its illegal and criminal actions against the Palestinians, Western, and especially American, support remains the same,” he added.
Israeli human rights group Yesh Din condemned Israel’s response, saying the army’s own law enforcement mechanisms are no longer even pretending to give the appearance of investigating.
“Israel didn’t even bother to stage the usual stunt of a full investigation into the killing of Shireen. You only need PR stunts when you have conditional support from your allies,” Shehada added.
“It was never an understatement to say that international impunity for Israel is the backbone of the occupation.”
A history of impunity
For Palestinians, the decision by Israel not to investigate Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing is consistent with Israel’s record over the decades, whether with journalists or civilians.
In April 2018, journalist Yasser Murtaja was shot by an Israeli sniper as he covered Gaza’s borders protests. He was also wearing a press jacket when he was shot.
Faced with outrage over his murder, the Israeli government alleged that Murtaja was a member of Hamas’ military wing, a charge that didn’t hold given that a month before his killing he was offered a grant by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) which said that its vetting process found no ties to militant activities.
Ultimately, no one was brought to justice.
"Israel sees the brutal force it exacts against Palestinians as a necessity to maintain its military occupation regime over millions of Palestinians"
Similarly, Fadel Shanaa, a Palestinian cameraman for Reuters, was killed in Israel’s military offensive on Gaza in 2008, when an Israeli tank opened fire on him and his crew. Shanaa was also wearing body armour that identified him as a journalist. Israel conducted an investigation and exonerated its troops.
But it’s not only journalists. Palestinian medic Razan Najjar was killed by the Israeli army while she was trying to evacuate the wounded during Gaza’s border protests in 2018.
She held up her hands as she approached the injured near the border fence and was clearly wearing a white medical vest. Israeli soldiers shot her in the chest.
Israel’s military subsequently tried to insinuate that she was being used as a ‘human shield’ by Hamas. Again, no Israeli soldier was held accountable.
Perhaps the most high-profile incident in recent years was the killing of Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, 21, in Hebron by Israeli soldier Elor Azaria. Caught on camera shooting the injured man in the head from close range, the incident provoked widespread condemnation.
However, after serving nine months in military jail he was pardoned and released, going on to become a hero for many in Israel’s right-wing circles and a local celebrity.
During the Second Intifada the killing of Rachel Corrie also garnered international attention. The American peace activist was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza.
After years of campaigning by her family and high-profile hearings, Israel’s Supreme Court in 2015 upheld a decision which invoked the ‘combat activities exception’, which exempts the Israeli military from liability during ‘wartime activity’.
"Only 0.7% of complaints against Israeli soldiers filed by Palestinians lead to indictments. Over 80% of cases are closed without a criminal investigation ever taking place"
Palestinians are more than aware that these well-known cases of impunity are the norm. Data collected by Israeli rights group Yesh Din shows that only 0.7% of complaints against Israeli soldiers filed by Palestinians lead to indictments.
Over 80% of cases are closed without a criminal investigation ever taking place.
Citing the failure of Israel’s army in bringing soldiers to justice, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem announced in 2016 that it would stop filing complaints of abuse altogether, as they cause more harm than good to Palestinian plaintiffs.
“Israel’s history of conducting investigations into its army’s crimes shows that they are not meant to seek accountability, but rather to grant blanket impunity to its soldiers,” Shehada said.
“These criminal actions are not outliers, they’re an everyday reality for the Palestinians, and everyday practices of the Israeli military occupation. And they’re not individuals’ behaviour, they’re meticulously designed state behaviour,” he added.
“Israel sees the brutal force it exacts against Palestinians as a necessity to maintain its military occupation regime over millions of Palestinians.”
Ali Adam is a journalist and researcher whose work focuses on issues linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Follow him on Twitter @_AliAdam_