Will the US hold Israel accountable for Shireen Abu Akleh's killing?
After the jarring viral images of the violent attack on mourners at the funeral of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem, following her killing by Israeli forces while covering an Israeli military raid in Jenin two days earlier, there was no turning a blind eye to what had happened.
A US citizen who was doing her job as a journalist was killed by a single bullet to her neck while wearing her protective helmet and flak jacket clearly marked ‘Press’.
Her colleagues, who witnessed the incident just footsteps away, said the perpetrator was an Israeli soldier. That means that the military of a US ally had deliberately killed a US citizen.
Public condemnation came firmly from the US government – from the president’s office to the State Department and both chambers of Congress. But the statements were not as powerful as one might expect for the killing of a US citizen abroad.
"Her colleagues, who witnessed the incident just footsteps away, said the perpetrator was an Israeli soldier. That means that the military of a US ally had deliberately killed a US citizen"
Last week, Israel announced that it would not be conducting an investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, citing no suspicion of a criminal act, in a possible sign that it believes it will not be held accountable by the US.
“As of now, Israel is saying it will not launch an investigation. That’s worse than usual. Usually, they launch a kangaroo court,” Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), told The New Arab.
“It’s not whether Israel will investigate, it’s that any Israeli investigation is illegitimate. It’s a slap in the face of justice that Israel is refusing to investigate. Even if they were, it would be illegitimate,” he said.
Activists and human rights groups are continuing to put pressure on the US government to launch its own investigation into Abu Akleh’s death. More than 50 Democratic members of Congress have signed letters in both the House and Senate denouncing the incident and demanding an independent investigation.
“In the case of Shireen, this is the first time I’ve seen these calls have become mainstream. The myth that Israel has some sort of independence has come to an end in DC,” said Jarrar, noting that this change appears to be happening only in the Democratic party, though it’s still significant, and he believes it could make a difference.
“This is an American citizen who was killed overseas by a foreign military. There really is nothing stopping the US government from starting an investigation. It doesn’t require the state department or a foreign government,” Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at DAWN, told The New Arab.
“There is precedent. Daniel Pearl, the American journalist with the Wall Street Journal, was killed and abducted in Pakistan. Even when he was missing, the FBI sent a team over to Pakistan. There’s precedent with a journalist.”
The main difference, he said, is “In Pakistan, you have authorities who are very cooperative. In this case, we have a country, Israel, who has not cooperated in the past.”
“There’s good reason to think there’s precedent, and there’s also good reason to think there’s more need for an independent US investigation,” he added.
But will there be a US investigation? If so, how would it happen? Shapiro says that the US would need to get an FBI team out to Israel.
Once there, the investigators would need to have access to the soldiers who were there, there would need to be disclosure from the Israeli military that a soldier was firing, and that person would need to be identified and brought in for questioning.
In similar cases of US citizens being killed by Israeli forces in the past, condemnations and initial demands to look deeper into the circumstances of death are common, but these almost never translate into concrete investigations.
Abu Akleh is not the first US citizen killed at the hands of Israel this year. In January, 78-year-old Omar Assad, a Palestinian-American, died of a heart attack after being detained, bound, and gagged by Israeli soldiers. While similar calls for investigations ensued, no criminal charges were brought.
"In similar cases of US citizens being killed by Israeli forces in the past, condemnations and initial demands to look deeper into the circumstances of death are common, but these almost never translate into concrete investigations"
In 2003, another US citizen, 23-year-old activist Rachel Corrie, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home. An Israeli military investigation ruled her death an accident, and despite some public pressure, no US investigation was ever launched.
From the US end, it would be important to know if any US supplies were used. Also worth examining is her phone, said Shapiro, noting that several months ago the phones of NGO workers were hacked by Pegasus spyware.
In addition to an official government investigation, Abu Akleh’s family has the option of pursuing justice independently in a US court.
Before her killing, Abu Akleh wrote to her producers, saying she was on her way to Jenin in the occupied West Bank: “Occupation forces storm Jenin and besiege a house in the Jabriyat neighbourhood. On the way there – I will bring you news as soon as the picture becomes clear.”
Abu Akleh, who worked for more than two decades for Al Jazeera, was referred to as the voice of Palestinians, and the widespread news coverage of her untimely death paid tribute to her important life and work. The responses from US government officials appear unprecedented for such an incident. However, no number of condolences will take the place of an investigation.
The key, say advocates, is accountability, given Israel’s position of receiving billions of dollars in aid annually from the US with no solid conditions attached.
“The US is always afraid of holding Israel accountable. This means our foreign policy is not consistent with our claims,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told The New Arab. “So far, it’s just lip service from the administration.”
At the very least, Israel appears to be losing the PR war in this story, possibly hoping at first that it would pass with the next news cycle, not anticipating the fallout that continues.
“Israel really exposed itself more than ever,” Ayah Ziyadeh, American Muslims for Palestine advocacy director, tells The New Arab. “I think the US response has been good, but not good enough. No one is putting enough pressure on the US.”
"The US is always afraid of holding Israel accountable. This means our foreign policy is not consistent with our claims"
There are already signs that things are continuing with business as usual. On Wednesday, one week after Abu Akleh’s killing, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Israeli Minister of Defence Benny Gantz in Washington, however, most of the meeting appeared to focus on Iran.
Anwar Mhajne, assistant professor of political science and international relations at Stonehill College, believes that even if Israel does eventually conduct an investigation it will probably go nowhere.
"Instead, Israel will continue blaming the Palestinians and claiming that Shireen was, after all, a reporter who worked for a channel that is considered an ‘enemy of the state.’”
Nevertheless, advocates hope that this time will be different.
“There’s a lot of movement,” says Jarrar. “Shireen is a symbol of journalism, Palestinians, Palestinian Americans, Israeli aggression and accountability. She has so many communities working on her behalf demanding accountability.”
“I hope this will be a watershed moment that will redefine the US relationship with Israel,” he said.
Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering the US and international politics, business, and culture.
Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews