Democracy Now ! / May 11, 2023
GUEST : Sharif Abdel Kouddous
LINK : “The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh”
One year ago, on May 11, 2022, an Israeli soldier fatally shot the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the head as she was reporting on an Israeli military raid just outside the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. She was shot while wearing a blue helmet and blue flak jacket clearly emblazoned with the word “press.” Abu Akleh was one of the most prominent TV journalists in the Arab world and had worked for Al-Jazeera for a quarter of a century. She was also a U.S. citizen. But a year after her death, no one has been held accountable despite detailed testimony from eyewitnesses to the shooting. We air excerpts from the Al-Jazeera investigation The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, which just won a George Polk Award, and speak with correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. “There’s still no justice in her case, no accountability whatsoever,” says Abdel Kouddous. He adds that while the White House has been very vocal about the case of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is detained in Russia, the response to Abu Akleh’s killing has been muted. “Shireen was an American citizen, and her family deserves the same calls for justice, the same push for accountability from the White House.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
It was one year ago today when an Israeli soldier fatally shot the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the head as she was reporting on an Israeli military raid just outside the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. She was shot while wearing a blue helmet and blue flat jacket clearly emblazoned with the word “press.” Shireen Abu Akleh was one of the most prominent TV journalists in the Arab world. She had worked for Al-Jazeera for a quarter of a century. She was also a U.S. citizen.
A year after her death, no one has been held accountable despite detailed testimony from eyewitnesses to the shooting. This is an excerpt from the Al Jazeera documentary The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, where correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous spoke to journalists who were there at the time of her death. It begins with her producer, Ali al-Samoudi, who was also shot.
ALI AL-SAMOUDI: [translated] When we made sure that there were no confrontations, we started walking slowly, with slow steps.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And about 25 seconds later, here they are walking with Shatha and Mujahid up the street, all in their press jackets, just past the spot where Salim had a view of the military.
ALI AL-SAMOUDI: [translated] Suddenly, a round of bullets was fired. I shouted, “Shireen, they’re shooting at us. We have to get out of here.” Just as I was saying, “We have to get out of here,” my shoulder exploded. I shouted, “Shireen, I was shot,” or I said, “Shireen, they shot me.”
MUJAHED AL-SAADI: [translated] After the first bullet, I was able to jump behind a short wall to take shelter in. Shireen and Shatha reached me to jump and get out of the place, but they couldn’t.
MAJDI BANNOURA: [translated] They started firing at us. I immediately pressed record. I saw Ali was wounded. He walked away. Shireen was behind the tree. I could still see her hiding behind the tree.
SHIREEN ABU AKLEH: [translated] Ali has been wounded!
ALI AL-SAMOUDI: [translated] The last words that Shireen said was, “Ali has been wounded,” “Ali has been wounded.” I mean, these ears, every day, all the time, Shireen’s voice is repeating in my ears.
MAJDI BANNOURA: [translated] I stepped forward again, and they started saying, “Shireen, Shireen.” But they shot at us again.
SHATHA HANAYSHA: [translated] I have a blank spot in my mind. I don’t remember how I got behind the tree. I got behind the tree and turned around to see if Shireen could come to where I was. At that point, I saw Shireen falling to the ground. I didn’t understand that she had been gravely wounded.
UNIDENTIFIED: Shireen! Shireen! [translated] Ambulance!
MAJDI BANNOURA: [translated] I stepped forward and saw Shireen on the ground. I’m holding the camera. I bend down. I want to walk, to walk toward Shireen.
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Stay! Stay! Stay where you are! Don’t move! Mujahed, don’t move!
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Who was shot?
UNIDENTIFIED: Shireen! Shireen!
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Ambulance!
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Ambulance!
SHATHA HANAYSHA: [translated] The whole time I wanted to shake her, to touch her, to move her, but I was also filled with fear because the tree was what was protecting us, and if I moved her, maybe she would be wounded again. I remember when I saw the blood on the ground, when the blood started coming out. That’s when I realized she had taken a bullet to the head. And I started shouting, “It’s her head! Her head!”
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Palestinian journalist Shatha Hanaysha in an excerpt from the documentary The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh from Al-Jazeera English’s current affairs program Fault Lines. The documentary just won a George Polk Award for Foreign Television Reporting. We’re joined now by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, the correspondent on the documentary.
Sharif, congratulations on the George Polk Award, but it’s hard to talk about congratulations today, this painful one-year anniversary of the death of Shireen Abu Akleh just outside the Jenin refugee camp. Can you talk about, at this point, one year later, what kind of investigation is being done? The U.S. government promised — Tony Blinken, the secretary of state — Shireen’s family this investigation would be done. Can you talk about what’s happening now?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I think the most important thing to understand is that, one year later, after Shireen’s killing, there’s still no justice in her case, no accountability whatsoever, and very little pressure from — or perhaps zero pressure from the White House, as Shireen was an American citizen, for accountability.
So, what’s happening right now is that a few months ago the FBI, independent of the White House, informed the Israeli government that they were opening a probe into Shireen’s investigation. The Israeli government said openly that it would not cooperate with that investigation. There has been no public disclosure of where that investigation stands. So we’ll have to see what comes out of that.
There is also the U.S. security coordinator, which is the liaison on the ground in the Occupied Territories, said they were going to release — or, Senator Chris Van Hollen announced that they’re releasing a new report, supposedly relatively soon. However, I don’t think anyone is holding their breath about what the findings are in this report, because the State Department itself said just last week that there was no new findings or conclusions. And so, if we look at their original report back in July, they said that Shireen was likely killed by an Israeli soldier but that it wasn’t intentional. They don’t determine how they came to that conclusion, and that conclusion also contradicts all the video evidence and eyewitness testimony. And it’s also confusing because, apparently, the security coordinator in this review met with Forensic Architecture and Al-Haq, two groups that together produced, I would say, the most comprehensive and detailed reconstruction of the killing. And in it, they show that Shireen and the group of journalists were repeatedly and deliberately targeted. They show a very high level of accuracy by the Israeli sniper. And, you know, despite that, the security coordinator is coming out with this report that very, very closely mirrors the Israeli government’s narrative, which is that Shireen was caught in crossfire, although there’s no evidence to substantiate that claim.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, you said, of course, that there has been little or likely no pressure from the White House on this investigation, the evidence of which was clear at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when Biden mentioned two other — rightly mentioned two other American journalists, but did not mention Shireen at all.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right. You know, President Biden met, actually, with the parents of Evan Gershkovich, The Wall Street Journal reporter who is unjustly being detained in Moscow on trumped-up charges. He met with them before the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. He paid tribute to them.
President Biden declined to meet with Shireen’s family, both when he visited the region last summer and when the family has come to Washington, D.C. So, you know, Shireen was an American citizen, and her family deserves the same call for justice, the same push for accountability from the White House.
And we also have to remember, you know, this is not — this is, you know, wholly — it’s outrageous, but it’s not surprising, coming from the Biden administration, which echoes decades of U.S. foreign policy, which is to back Israel and grant it this impunity.
And if we look at — also, the Committee to Protect Journalists, just a couple of days ago, put out a report looking back over two decades at the killings by the Israeli military of 20 different journalists, and they document very clearly a pattern of impunity and kind of very systemic similarities in Israel’s response to each killing, including the most fundamental one, that no one is ever held accountable for them. But they include, like, the standard playbook, which is preemptive denials of responsibility, pushing false narratives, discounting evidence in the case, and internal investigations that lack any kind of transparency and never lead to charges. This is exactly what happened in Shireen’s case, and it shows that this is a pattern of impunity.
And again, look, this is one of the most prominent journalists of her generation, who was killed in broad daylight as she was wearing her press jacket and helmet with the word “press” clearly visible on them, with much of it caught on camera, with her colleagues there to witness it, with the citizenship of a country that’s the main backer of the Israeli military. If we can’t find justice for Shireen, what chance does anyone in Palestine have?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to your documentary, The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, when you spoke to Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: This is an American citizen. We have a duty to pursue the facts wherever they lead, as Secretary Blinken himself said.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Senator Chris Van Hollen has led a group of his colleagues in pushing the Biden administration to investigate Shireen’s killing.
Why do you think the State Department hasn’t conducted an independent investigation yet?
SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Their new view — not the original words of the secretary — is that they will take these other investigations that have been completed. The problem, the challenge is they have reached very different conclusions. You have, first of all, the IDF report justifies the shooting and the shooting death based on claims that there was a crossfire. But you also have independent analyses that have been done that clearly dispute that claim. And the IDF has not put the facts on the table that show how it reached that conclusion. They have not made public their analysis.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: This was a U.S. citizen. Do you believe the administration has upheld their duty?
SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: I do not. I think we have a duty to do what the secretary of state originally said. They appear to have backed off. But I believe, and many of my colleagues believe, that we’ve got to get to the bottom of this, and it cannot be swept under the rug.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, who also questioned the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Jordan a few days ago about Shireen’s case. So, when President Biden went to Israel and the West Bank, Tony Blinken and the U.S. government told the family, because he didn’t meet with them, that this investigation would be going on. At this point — you saw on World Press Freedom Day just a few days ago, Medea Benjamin did a civil disobedience right at the feet of Tony Blinken, demanding to know more about what’s happening with Shireen — with the investigation into Shireen’s death. Your final comments, Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I think we should go to the words of the family. They just released a statement. And part of it says, “Over the past year, our family has been forced to grieve while seeking justice and accountability for Israel’s war crimes. From the beginning we’ve called on the U.S. government to act in the same way it would if any other American citizen was killed abroad.” And they go on to say, “We miss Shireen every moment of every day. We wake up every morning hoping that we’ll finally wake up from this nightmare. We love you Shireen.”
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, we want to thank you so much for being with us, correspondent on the new documentary The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, produced by Al-Jazeera’s documentary program Fault Lines. He just won a George Polk Award for Foreign Television Reporting. Today is the first anniversary of the death of Shireen Abu Akleh in the occupied West Bank.