Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s death should have marked a turning point for the United States government’s approach to the protection of journalists overseas – but when an allied nation could be to blame, that becomes a problem.
Abu Akleh was an experienced journalist, who was employed by Al-Jazeera. She was also a Christian, and was considered a courageous reporter. But to many Palestinians, she was a household name that many of their children grew up with watching on television. It was shocking because she was apparently shot by Israeli troops in her head using live ammunition during a raid at Jenin Camp in West Bank.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry then quickly shared a video of Palestinian gunmen opening fire in Jenin, claiming on TwitterPalestinians “firing indiscriminately, are likely to have hit Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqla.” B’Tselem, Israel’s top human rights organization, then conducted an investigation into the claims produced by the Israeli government, demonstrating “that the shooting depicted in this video could not possibly be the gunfire that hit Shireen Abu Akleh and her colleague.” Despite the lack of evidence, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett suggested in a speech addressing the incident that there was a “significant possibility”a Palestinian probe was requested.
When US State Department spokesperson Ned Price addressed the US media on the night of Abu Akleh’s death and offered the Biden administration’s position and reaction to the killing, he voiced Washington’s trust in the Israeli government’s ability to carry out an investigation. When pushed by journalists as to why an international investigation should not be undertaken, one in which the US would be involved – due to doubts about Israel’s ability to be unbiased – Price referenced the case of Iyad al-Halak. Iyad al Halak was a Palestinian citizen with special needs, who was gunned down by Israeli police in Jerusalem on May 2020. Price used the incident as an example that Israel held its forces accountable, but the case is still ongoing. The Israeli authorities have not released the name or the identity of the officer.
Israel’s position, that Palestinians most likely killed Abu Akleh, then shifted a day later, when Israeli authorities stated that they would carry out a probe into her death and it was even mentioned that the possibility that an Israeli soldier killed her would be investigated. However, according to reports on May 19, Israel is no longer going to investigate the killing, because a probe treating Israeli soldiers as suspects would likely face opposition from the country’s society.
Given that it is now in question as to whether an Israeli investigation into Abu Akleh’s murder will even be carried out at all, the US government’s assertion that Israel can be trusted to carry out a fair probe looks even less credible. In fact, Israel’s past actions indicate the exact opposite. The last case of Israel shooting a clearly marked journalist, who was wearing a vest labeled ‘Press’, occurred in the Gaza Strip back in April of 2018, when snipers shot dead 30-year-old Yasser Murtaja, during a mass non-violent demonstration. “Yaser Murtaja was a civilian and a journalist who was wearing clear press identification while he was filming the demonstrations at the Gaza fence with Israel. He was there because he wanted to document civilians exercising their right to peacefully protest,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council at the time, a finding reflected in a later UN human rights report.
Israeli officials claimed that Murtaja was operating a drone high above Israeli soldiers’ heads and attempted to label the young journalist a terrorist, instead of investigating the soldiers involved in Murtaja’s death. Not only did Israel not prosecute any of its soldiers for this killing, not a single soldier was charged for the killing of over 300 Palestinians, including two other journalists, during the ‘Great Return March’ demonstrations in 2018-19.
Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier killed a Palestinian who lay unconscious on the ground in al-Khalil (West Bank). Israel finally took action after video of the whole incident was made public, and Azaria received an 18-month sentence. However, this was later reduced to four months by the army’s chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot. It was the last time that an Israeli soldier was sentenced to prison for murdering a Palestinian.
At Abu Akleh’s funeral last Friday, Israeli forces attacked mourners and pallbearers, later claiming that the Palestinians were hurling rocks and bottles at them – but there have since appeared indications of doctoring and selective editingBy the police who filmed the funeral.
Even if Israel conducts its own investigation into the killing of her, it is clear from past experiences that an impartial outcome is not possible. Therefore, Israeli soldiers will not face the full extent of the law, even if they are found guilty. In fact, the accountability track record is so bad that B’Tselem, the human rights group, no longer bothers submitting complaints to the Israel Defense Forces and police, seeing it as a useless endeavor.
In not calling for an International Investigation or even launching one, the US Administration is sending Israel a clear signal that those responsible for the deaths of US journalists in the occupied Palestinian territory are in no way accountable.
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