Biden can’t ignore the apartheid elephant in the room

A mural depicting Shireen Abu Aqleh painted on to Israel's separation barrier in Bethlehem (Ahmad Gharabli - AFP)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  July 14, 2022

Joe Biden’s administration appears determined not to let the Palestinians and their tiresome demands for justice and liberation put a damper on his visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Biden was asked during an interview with Israeli TV about progressive members of the Democratic Party who call Israel an “apartheid state” and support ending unconditional aid to Tel Aviv.

“There are few of them. I think they’re wrong. I think they’re making a mistake,” Biden said. “Israel is a democracy. Israel is our ally. Israel is a friend, and I think that I make no apologies.”

But there is only so much the president, intent on shoring up US hegemony in the region, can do to avoid acknowledging the apartheid elephant in the room.

A State Department announcement clearing Israel of direct responsibility for the killing of beloved Al Jazeera correspondent and US citizen Shireen Abu Akleh – issued on the Fourth of July holiday – has done little to turn attention away from the crime.

Instead, it has only generated more questions and raised eyebrows over the apparent US role in the Israeli cover-up of responsibility for her death while she was covering a military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin.

The State Department, citing an “extremely detailed forensic analysis,” said that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was too badly damaged for US officials to definitively determine who fired it. Yet paradoxically, the State Department also insists on the basis of this inconclusive evidence that there is no reason to believe that her killing was intentional.

Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, noted that the examination of the bullet by US officials “was conducted without the participation of the State of Palestine or even an expert representing Abu Akleh’s family.”

The group said that the State Department announcement was of a “political nature rather than a professional one, which promotes impunity and constitutes a desperate attempt to hide the truth and shield the perpetrators.”

Amnesty International stated Wednesday that Abu Akleh’s killing provided “a stark reminder of the crimes committed by the Israeli authorities to maintain their system of oppression and domination over Palestinians and of the US’ role in shielding Israel from accountability.”

The human rights group added that “the Biden administration and US Congress must stop the supply of arms to the Israeli military until it is guaranteed that such equipment would not be used for serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.”

On the eve of Biden’s arrival, the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders called on US authorities to open a criminal investigation into Abu Akleh’s death.

‘Justice for Shireen’

Last week, Abu Akleh’s family demanded that Biden meet with them during his visit and share with them all of the information the US has gathered regarding the killing. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, reportedly called the family and invited them to the US for a sit-down discussion instead.

Anton Abu Akleh, the slain journalist’s brother, told media that there was no date set for the meeting and he hoped that Biden would attend.

“What’s important and what we want to get to is justice for Shireen,” he told the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz.

Lina Abu Akleh, the late Al Jazeera correspondent’s niece, wrote in an op-ed for Al Jazeera that they want the FBI and State Department “to reveal not only the chain of command and orders given when the shot was fired, but also to reveal what weapons were used in Shireen’s killing, and how those weapons were purchased.”

“If the weapon that killed my aunt is connected to US military aid,” Lina Abu Akleh added, “Biden must explain to us why the US government finds it acceptable that a foreign government kills US citizens with weapons purchased by US taxpayers.”

The US provides an unconditional minimum of $3.8 billion in military assistance to Israel each year.

In her op-ed, Abu Akleh pointed to the lack of accountability for the death of 78-year-old Omar Assad, another Palestinian with US citizenship, earlier this year. The grandfather had a stress-induced heart attack while being arbitrarily detained and abused by Israeli soldiers while returning home from visiting relatives in his West Bank village.

Democrats pressure Biden

The White House continues to feel the heat from the president’s party, with six Democratic senators issuing two separate letters to Biden after the State Department’s 4 July announcement.

One of those letters was issued by ranking senator Dick Durbin, Chris Murphy, Chris Van Hollen and Patrick Leahy, who authored a law barring violators of human rights from receiving US training and equipment.

That letter states that the United States Security Coordinator’s review of the findings reached by the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority in their respective investigations of Abu Akleh’s death falls short of the independent probe demanded by dozens of members of Congress.

In their letter, the senators seek clarity on the role of US agencies in the USSC review and the nature of the material reviewed, including whether it included the investigations conducted by The New York TimesThe Washington Post, CNN, the Associated Press and the UN human rights office – all of which pointed to Israeli responsibility for Abu Akleh’s death.

They ask “which specific evidence led to the USSC’s conclusion ‘that there is no reason to believe that [Abu Akleh’s killing] was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances.”

The senators also ask whether the USSC determined whether the Israeli military questioned the soldier who fired the rifle that Israel says may have been used to kill Abu Akleh.

“Did the USSC, FBI or any other US agencies request to interview the soldier?” the senators ask.

Meanwhile, Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the committee on foreign relations, and Cory Booker, who has supported federal legislation encouraging states to punish supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights, are also demanding answers from Biden.

“We urge you to raise Ms. Abu Akleh’s case at the highest levels and press for accountability during your upcoming visit to Israel and the West Bank,” the senators stated in their letter to Biden.

The senators asked Biden for “a senior-level classified briefing on the investigation details, including American involvement” with “the utmost urgency.”

Visa Waiver Program

While Palestinians and Democratic legislators press for justice for Shireen Abu Akleh, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee expressed on Tuesday “its profound disappointment at the Biden administration’s treatment of the civil and human rights of Arab Americans generally, and Palestinian Americans specifically.”

The ADC said it has serious concerns over the Biden administration’s desire to admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program “despite the systematic and discriminatory way they treat Arab Americans.”

Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, recently tweeted that he had “been working around the clock … to help Israel meet all the requirements to join” the program.

“This will help Israeli citizens travel to the US – put them first!”

Earlier, ADC stated in a letter to Biden that “currently, American citizens who hold Palestinian identity cards are not able to fly into Israel.” Instead, they must travel to Jordan and enter via Allenby Bridge, “a process that can take hours should every aspect go correct.”

The civil liberties group added that “Arab Americans who only hold American passports face extended periods of interrogation when arriving in Tel Aviv, and their entry into the country is determined by how the particular border control agent feels that particular day.”

“There is no world in which these types of restrictions and requirements comport with the reciprocity necessary for inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program,” the ADC stated.

Meanwhile, new regulations from COGAT, the bureaucratic arm of Israel’s military occupation, will require Palestinian Americans who want to visit their family in the West Bank to apply to Israeli authorities for permission ahead of time.

As reported by Mondoweiss, travelers must “reveal the personal information of the relatives they plan on visiting, along with data of any land they own or stand to inherit in the territory.”

Israeli authorities may still arbitrarily deny them entry.

The regulations also restrict the number of foreign students and instructors allowed to attend and teach at Palestinian universities in the West Bank and limit their time in the territory.

Universities will be able to employ lecturers from abroad “only if they teach in fields that have been designated as essential by Israel,” the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported earlier this year.

Hagai El-Ad, director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, stated on Wednesday that “the US must acknowledge that the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is governed by an apartheid regime, and change its attitude to Israel accordingly. When the attitude changes – so will the regime.”

The organization erected billboards in the West Bank reading “Mr. President, this is apartheid” to greet Biden when he enters the territory on Friday.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada