Shireen Abu Akleh’s assassination should prompt calls for sanctions

(Hazem Bader - AFP)

Theo Horesh

Mondoweiss  /  May 14, 2022

The idea of sanctioning Israel may appear a pipe dream, but two recent precedents show it is very possible.

Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot in the neck, just above her bullet proof vest, and just under her helmet, in the West Bank city of Jenin. The precise placement of the shot suggests the killing was intentional. She was a reporter for Al Jazeera and an American citizen. Hence, if she was shot by Israeli forces, it should deserve a powerful American rebuke.

The fact that she was shot in a city that has been occupied by Israel for 55 years should serve as a reminder that Israel has taken land from each of its neighbors. The presence of Israeli troops in the city where she was shot should prompt renewed calls for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory.

Israel routinely targets Palestinian journalists and news outlets. So, given her Palestinian heritage, it should have come as no surprise. Yet, targeting an American citizen and the member of a major international media outlet could not have been more brazen.

The Israeli government responded to the killing by saying that Palestinian gunmen were firing wildly in a shootout with Israel forces when she was shot, insinuating it may have been an errant bullet. However, a Washington Post investigation concluded that the gunfire to which they were referring occurred 950 feet away from the shooting. Research from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reached the same conclusion. Most importantly, another journalist standing beside Abu Akleh, who was himself shot in the back, said that when the gunfire started, it was “dead quiet.” He stated that the gunfire did not stop when she went down, and that the bullets were fired at them directly. 

So, the government was likely lying about the location of the killing, and there is no reason to believe the Israeli government’s claim that it was an errant bullet. Seven journalists present at the scene of the crime also say that Abu Akleh was targeted directly by Israeli forces, and it is unlikely they would all lie in order to defend the people who just shot their colleagues. The evidence points to a government assassination, and those responsible should be held accountable for their attempted cover-up.

This conclusion is supported by Israel’s long history of attacking media outlets and assassinating journalists.

At the height of its assault on Gaza last year, Israel blew up a tower housing Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. Thus, this week was not the first time they targeted Al-Jazeera journalists. Israel also blew up another building shortly thereafter, the al-Shorouk Tower housing seven lesser known media outlets. It would appear Israel has a habit of bombing media outlets.

Since the year 2000, the state has killed 46 Palestinian journalists, according to the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate. An Israeli sniper even shot The New York Times’ own Anthony Shadid in 2002 when he was working for The Boston Globe. So, it is fair to say that the Israeli military has institutionalized the targeting of journalists.

Prominent Saudis were sanctioned for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi when Biden came to office, even though Saudi Arabia is an American ally. Thus, it is fair to expect the killing of journalists from prominent media outlets to be sanctioned, even when they are carried out by American allies. And Abu Akleh was an American citizen, while Khashoggi wasn’t. Hence, we should expect the Biden administration to take her killing more seriously, and for Israel to pay a higher price for it.

Yet, sanctioning Israel simply for killing journalists would be like imprisoning Al Capone for tax evasion.

If Russia was sanctioned for taking the Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, then Israel should be sanctioned for refusing to give up the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. If the sanctions on Russia were intensified due to their many recent war crimes, Israel should be sanctioned for its own in Gaza. After all, its last major assault on Gaza involved the bombardment of two refuge centers, three major media towers, multiple high-rise apartment buildings, and nine medical centers in just a few short weeks.

The failure to hold Israel accountable for these sorts of abuses always comes at the price of legitimacy when attempting to hold others accountable for similar crimes.

For instance, the failure to sanction Israel for its system of apartheid sullies the story of using sanctions to end Apartheid in South Africa, and the failure to sanction Israel for ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem leads people to question the motives behind sanctioning Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Bosnia. As the double standards start to add up, the states applying them begin to look more hypocritical, and it becomes ever harder to take their arguments seriously.

In this way, the failure to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses complicates efforts to hold other states accountable for their own.

Each of these crimes alone would warrant sanctions, but together they break ground in unpunished international criminality, and that’s a problem for governments supposedly seeking an international rules based order. Developed democracies benefit from an international rules based order, because it tends to marginalize lawless autocracies and protect the fledgling democracies with which they might ally. It also supports increased trade and economic growth.

Just because they benefit from a rules based order doesn’t mean they don’t try to carve out exceptions for allies like Israel and themselves, but there are only so many exceptions they can make before they stop being taken seriously. So, allowing Israel’s assassination of journalists and other crimes against humanity hurts developed democracies that depend on an international rules based order to thrive. It also harms their soft power by discrediting their insistence on basic standards of international decency.

In this way, the Israeli assassination of a single Palestinian-American journalist, reporting from occupied Palestinian  territory, undermines the world order developed democracies commonly seek to maintain. It also undermines the recent goals of developed democracies in isolating Russia by lending to the sanctions a sense of arbitrariness or political expediency.

If the state that has killed so many Palestinian journalists, in an effort to cover up its other crimes against humanity, is allowed to get away with it without being sanctioned, then other states will feel a little freer to assassinate journalists and blow up media outlets. So, sanctioning Israel would also benefit people the world over victimized by human rights abuses. 

The idea of sanctioning Israel may appear a pipe dream, but it challenges policy makers to carry out a consistent set of principles. It also follows two recent precedents. The first is that of the sanctions placed on Russia, which highlight the importance of sanctions in pressuring states to abide by international law. The second is that of the Biden administration’s sanctions on the maker of Pegasus Spyware, the NSO Group, which is essentially a branch of the Israeli government.

Sanctioning the officials responsible for the murder of Abu Akleh would therefore follow a precedent that has already been set by the Biden administration, and it could help normalize sanctioning Israel without exposing the administration to an unsustainable level of political fallout. In this way, targeting a limited number of officials for the assassination of Abu Akleh might set the administration on a slippery slope leading to a wider and more forceful sanctions regime. 

Theo Horesh is the author of four books on global affairs.