Eight days after Biden made these comments, a celebrated female journalist joined this year’s grim and growing list of victims: Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian-American correspondent for Al Jazeera, was shot dead while covering clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians near the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
Israeli authorities initially tried to blame Palestinian militants for her death, while Al Jazeera and numerous eyewitnesses said she was shot by Israeli soldiers.
Subsequent detailed investigation by a number of major media outlets, including The Washington Post, found that those Israeli claims were almost certainly false and that Abu Akleh was likely killed by Israeli sniper fire. In written responses to my colleagues at the time, the Israeli Defense Forces stated that “no IDF soldier intentionally fired at a journalist,” although it provided no evidence to justify that conclusion. Nor did it respond to questions about what Israeli footage of the incident — through drones or body cameras carried by most soldiers — might show.
Those findings came out in June. Yet, beyond expressions of condolence and grief, the Biden administration did little to demand justice for a journalist — and finally an American citizen — allegedly murdered by the Israelis and seemed instead to repeat the Israeli line, which had shifted as more evidence emerged. On July 4, the State Department issued a brief statement after completing an analysis of the forensic and ballistic evidence, as well as separate investigations conducted by the Palestinians and Israelis. It concluded that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh likely came from Israeli gunfire, but there was “no reason to believe this was intentional” — a conclusion that seemingly brushed aside Israeli blame and infuriated the family of Abu Akleh and others. who sought accountability.
President Biden has not complied with a request from Abu Akleh’s relatives to meet this month while visiting Israel and the West Bank. He did not mention her in public comments when standing next to Israeli officials. But US officials still insisted that the Biden administration cared about its cause.
“Efforts will have to be made to account for it and make sure we find a way to end this chapter justly,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters before Biden landed in Israel. “This is someone who was a journalist, an American citizen. The president, the secretary of state, the whole team mourns the family.”
“We want to be held accountable, like holding the Israeli government accountable, starting with… the soldier who pulled the trigger”
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) July 27, 2022
Abu Akleh’s family is now holding the Biden government at its word. This week, her brother, his wife and their two children came to Washington to plead her case. That started on Tuesday with a meeting with State Secretary Antony Blinken, where they came from disappointed.
“We were hoping they would tell us something we hadn’t heard before,” Shireen’s niece Lina Abu Akleh told me the next day. But it wasn’t to be: “It was just the same rhetoric, repeating the same statements,” she added. Blinken apparently made no new commitments or promises and did not retract the July 4 statement that upset the Abu Akleh family so much.
“Why would they come to a conclusion about intent and harm our case, if they don’t have clear evidence or credible sources,” Abu Akleh said. “You wonder – are they trying to cover up the story, shove it under the rug, close the case?”
She believes her aunt was “clearly the target” of a “highly accurate shot” even while wearing a visibly marked press vest. “That’s by no means a mistake,” she said.
The family also met with officials from the Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Department, which is separately involved in the investigation into the murder of an American journalist by Russian forces in Ukraine.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Abu Akleh pointed to a long history of impunity for Israel when it comes to killing American civilians — from the infamous 2003 incident where an Israeli soldier drove a bulldozer over peace activist Rachel Corrie to earlier this year. , when Israeli forces dragged Omar Assad, a 78-year-old Palestinian American, from his car at a checkpoint and left him tied and gagged in the cold on a construction site, where he died of a heart attack.
“The US has a choice to make: they support human rights, the equal treatment of their citizens, support justice, or continue to perpetuate the impunity Israel enjoys,” she told me.
The Abu Akleh family deserves accountability. CNN, NYT, etc. found that Shireen was shot by an Israeli sniper while wearing a press vest. Yet the US has done nothing. We haven’t even done a thorough investigation into this murder of an American reporter. President Biden must act. pic.twitter.com/A4rhu3D1lt
— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@RepAOC) July 28, 2022
For the Palestinians, the lack of responsibility for Abu Akleh’s death is a parable of the wider injustice of the the prevailing status quo – one where millions of Palestinians remain subject to Israeli military occupation, second-class citizens in their own country. They view her murder as yet another example of the impunity with which Israel can operate, and the response of the Biden administration to date, as yet another example of how the United States has historically protected Israel from censorship and control.
“Her case represents all the stories she has covered over the past 25 years,” Abu Akleh said, pointing to her aunt’s quarter-century of coverage of politics and conflict in the occupied territories. “When you talk about her case, you’re talking about the whole case of Palestine.”
The family received more encouragement after meetings on the hill. A press conference on Thursday on the steps of the Capitol was attended by a series of prominent Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (NY), who urged the Biden administration to launch a proper, independent investigation into the incident.
A statement from six Democratic senators on the credit committee, including Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.), outlined how they had introduced a text that would require Blinken or a prospective Secretary of State to file a report on the steps taken. to enable a credible investigation into Abu Akleh’s death. “We will continue to work to uncover the full truth about this tragedy, to be accountable and to demonstrate our unwavering support for press freedom and the safety of journalists around the world,” they said.
The legislators’ support “gave us some comfort and solace,” Abu Akleh said, “but we haven’t seen any meaningful action for two months.”
They may have a long way to go: Palestinian human rights are far from a bipartisan priority in Washington, while the Biden administration has already made it clear that it has no interest in reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the dying prospect of an independent Palestinian state. The Abu Akleh family has said they are willing to take the case to the International Criminal Court, but the ICC is an institution whose jurisdiction neither the United States nor Israel recognizes.
During his trip to the Middle East, Biden preached “about human rights,” Abu Akleh said. “We just hope the same values are applied to Palestinian lives.”