Can Abu Akleh's ICC case finally hold Israel accountable?

Can Shireen Abu Akleh's ICC case finally hold Israel accountable?
7 min read

Richard Silverstein

13 October, 2022
After killing Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Israeli forces followed and old playbook: confuse the public, obscure the truth, and absolve themselves of accountability. But this time, they may have gone too far, writes Richard Silverstein.
A mural of Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed while covering an Israeli army raid in Jenin in May, drawn on Israel's separation wall in the occupied West Bank, on 6 July 2022. [Getty]

Documenting the daily oppression, Shireen Abu Akleh was the voice of Palestine for millions in the Middle East and around the world. Her employer, Al Jazeera, called her “the pulse of Palestine.”

She was one of the few who reported on the ground and challenged the prevailing Israeli narrative. She performed her job in ways no other would dare, going directly to the source of Israeli violence and fearlessly documenting it for her audience.

Palestinian MP Khalida Jarrar said that Abu Akleh was killed by “the monstrosity of Israeli colonialism and occupation”. “Shireen was our voice. It is unbelievable. It is a crime, it is all clear – intentional and direct targeting,” said Jarrar.

Immediately after the tragedy, the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) released stories justifying her murder, many of which conflicted with each other: Palestinian militants were firing at the IOF position and accidentally killed her; a ricochet bullet killed her; militants were firing at the IOF near her position and she was unintentionally hit.

The army’s “final report” offered many of these claims, along with one declaring it was not responsible and would not identify or hold the sniper who fired the fatal shot accountable.

These defences follow a clear pattern. When the IOF is caught in an embarrassing incident, its strategy is to promote a narrative which absolves it of responsibility while obscuring the truth. If it can confuse things, it will seed doubt in the minds of the public.

The average person will not delve deeply into the various conflicting accounts, and will not know who to blame. This deflects accountability. If the Israeli account stays in the news cycle long enough, it will significantly deflate the controversy.

During Israel’s 2021 invasion of Gaza, Operation Guardian of the Walls, it followed the same pattern. After toppling a high-rise tower housing the offices of several media outlets including Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, it claimed Hamas used the building as an observation post.

But it never offered evidence to support this claim. Nevertheless, all it required was enough plausibility that the public believed it could be true. This lessened the impact of the real story and accomplished its goal.

But in this instance, the IOF went too far. It murdered a prominent journalist in broad daylight, in front of witnesses who documented the tragedy with video footage and their own eyewitness accounts.

Al Jazeera itself published extensive investigative reports documenting every aspect of the killing including video, audio and witness testimony. Other prominent outlets recognised the threat to their own press freedom and safety. The Washington Post published its own extensive report in which it documented similar evidence. AP also offered its own extensive analysis as did CNN. All reached the same conclusion: that Abu Akleh was deliberately targeted by an IOF unit which intended to kill her.

The most thorough investigation to date by Forensic Architecture and the Palestinian human rights NGO, Al Haq, produced a painstaking reconstruction of all the factors involved in the killing. It went farther than previous inquiries by examining bullet trajectory, audio recordings of the shots fired and their timing, the killer’s lines of sight along with the location of the victims, and the bullet itself (IOF-issued sniper ammunition). It also created physical models of the scene including the Israeli vehicle which was the source of deadly fire.

Dogged media coverage kept the tragedy in the public eye. A key factor in this process was her dual Palestinian-American citizenship. This forced the Biden administration to reluctantly respond. At first, the State Department expressed concern and suggested a joint Palestinian-Israeli investigation. That stance satisfied no one because clearly the party which murdered her had no standing to investigate a crime it committed. 

The Israelis, for their part, complained that no one could establish the cause of her death without it being involved in the process. Further, it demanded the bullet which killed her so it could determine whether its own personnel might have fired it.

The Palestinian Authority refused all of these demands. It conducted an autopsy and offered the results to a US expert, who shared them with Israel and the Biden administration. The result was yet another statement which supported Israeli claims: that Abu Akleh may have been hit by an Israeli bullet, but that her death was due to a tragic mistake.

Israel had another motivation for killing Abu Akleh. Many Israelis believe that Palestinian journalists are themselves ‘terrorists’, as accessories to Palestinian resistance. If an armed militant is no different than a journalist, then it’s open season on the latter.

In this regard, the video camera is the same as a weapon. And the scenes they share with the world justify, in the eyes of Israelis, their killing. This explains why the IOF abandoned its previous policy of firing warning shots. Instead, the sniper shot to kill Abu Akleh and her colleagues. Such an escalation in the rules of engagement sends a chilling message to journalists: we are willing to kill you to prevent you from reporting on us.

Curiously, a video of the press conference announcing a complaint about Shireen’s murder to the International Criminal Court (ICC) comes with a warning saying its contents could be considered “offensive or inappropriate.” This clearly is an attempt either by Israel, or users of the platform acting on its behalf, to suppress efforts for accountability. 

Israel has previously met with Google and YouTube executives to complain about anti-Israel content, boasting that the company had agreed to take down offending videos.

Why has the US administration dragged its feet? After all, Abu Akleh was a US citizen. The government has an obligation to protect every citizen and determine the fate of those who perish. If a correspondent for a major US outlet was killed by a foreign military, the response would have been immediate and robust.

My strong suspicion is that her murder has become entwined with larger national interests in the region. Biden wants to renew the Iran nuclear deal. Besides the complexity of the negotiations themselves, he has another major obstacle to overcome: Israeli resistance. It is the most critical outside player in this drama. And it is adamantly opposed to it.

Investigating Israel over Shireen’s murder could increase Israel’s motivation to sabotage negotiations. It, of course, knows this and would barter with the Americans, demanding they tone down their rhetoric, which is precisely what happened.

Abu Akleh’s family has now filed a complaint with the ICC, which is examining potential Israeli war crimes, including the murder of 150 protestors during the Great March of Return and the murder of 2,300 Palestinians during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Al Haq itself has special standing with the ICC and has filed its own formal complaint.

The complaint provides supporting evidence of these crimes and increase the chance that Israel may be held accountable for its apartheid policies and the murder of nearly 40,000 Palestinians since 1948.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog and is a freelance journalist specialising in exposing secrets of the Israeli national security state. He campaigns against opacity and the negative impact of Israeli military censorship.

Follow him on Twitter: @richards1052

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.