The Intercept / May 9, 2023
A year after Israel killed the Palestinian American journalist, an FBI probe remains pending, yet the U.S. has gone silent on her death.
At Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in the occupied West Bank, in a high-rise building by Ramallah’s central square, Shireen Abu Akleh’s colleagues have turned her office into a memorial. A room that was once filled by the veteran correspondent’s voice and laughter is now decorated with flowers, portraits, and tributes to her life and career from all over Palestine and the world.
This week marks one year since an Israeli soldier killed the Palestinian American journalist with a single shot to the head while she was reporting from the city of Jenin. For her former colleagues, her absence is as dominating as her presence once was.
“She was a legend,” Rania Zabaneh, an Al-Jazeera producer and friend of Abu Akleh told The Intercept during a visit to the office earlier this year. Abu Akleh was universally loved among her peers and a household name across the Middle East. While she spent her career covering the daily tragedies of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation, her co-workers remember her as funny and upbeat, always seeking out stories about joy and resilience. “She dug for fun, happy stories in a place where everything else is dark,” said Zabaneh.
Over the last year, Abu Akleh’s colleagues have continued to report on Israeli violence across occupied Palestine, including increasingly frequent military invasions of West Bank cities like the one she was covering the day she was killed. They have also found themselves at the center of the story: regularly updating the public about the various probes into their colleague’s death while actively participating in global calls for justice.
No one has been held accountable for Abu Akleh’s killing to date. While Israeli officials quickly closed the case, declining to bring charges, the most significant movement has so far come from the United States. Last fall, the FBI launched an investigation last fall following a sustained public pressure campaign, including by members of Congress; that probe is ongoing. Meanwhile, the Office of the U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the liaison on security issues in the region, has delayed issuing its own report into the killing.
Along with Abu Akleh’s family, Al-Jazeera has filed a formal request to investigate the killing to the International Criminal Court, whose probe into an array of alleged crimes committed in Palestine has not made much progress since it was launched in 2021.
As those probes stall, many of Abu Akleh’s colleagues still struggle to cope with the void she left.
“At first, we were on autopilot; we were like, she’s gone and we have to cover her killing,” said Zabaneh. “But it’s getting harder as time passes, because now we have to come to terms with the fact that she’s not coming back; she’s gone, gone.”
When Abu Akleh was shot on May 11, 2022, she was wearing a clearly marked press vest in an area with no active fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters. (Israel initially claimed that she was killed at the scene of a firefight, a claim that was quickly debunked.) In the weeks following her killing, half a dozen independent reviews, including one by the United Nations, found that Israeli forces were responsible. Last July, Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq and the U.K.-based research agency Forensic Architecture released a detailed reconstruction of the shooting, which concluded that Abu Akleh had been deliberately targeted.
While the killing sparked significant international condemnation, it was hardly an isolated incident.
Last year was the deadliest for Palestinians in the West Bank since the end of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. This year is on track to be worse, as Israeli forces make military incursions into cities like Nablus and Jenin with increasing frequency. According to the U.N., Israeli forces have already killed at least 94 Palestinians this year, including at least 19 children, more than double last year’s number in the same period.
Israeli soldiers killing Palestinians almost never face consequences. And there also hasn’t been any accountability when they have killed citizens of other countries, including several Americans. As The Intercept reported last year, the U.S government never investigated Israel’s killing of 23-year-old peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death with a bulldozer while protesting a home demolition in Gaza 20 years ago, nor of 78-year-old Omar Assad, a former Milwaukee grocery store owner who died of a heart attack last year while in the custody of a notoriously violent Israeli military unit.
The Justice Department’s investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, which came only after serious outrage at U.S. inaction in the case, marked the first time the U.S. government moved to independently probe Israel’s killing of an American. As standard with criminal investigations by the FBI, Justice Department officials have not spoken publicly about the case. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Last July, the USSC, the U.S. security coordinator in the region, issued a cursory statement on the killing that sparked widespread condemnation and questions about the office’s independence. Since then, the coordinator has launched a new review of the killing, which has included a meeting with members of Forensic Architecture and Al-Haq earlier this year.
Following a formal request by Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, the security coordinator was expected to provide a classified congressional briefing on his office’s investigation of the case. That never happened, and a report by the coordinator, which was expected to be released earlier this year, has also been delayed. During a press briefing last week, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said that the USSC “has not changed” the conclusions it had reached last summer, “which is that [Israeli Defense Forces] gunfire was likely the reason, unintentionally.”
In a letter published last week, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who has consistently raised Abu Akleh’s case, criticized the delay and reiterated a request for the report to be released. “Most recently, we were informed that, before congressional release of the USSC Report is authorized, the Administration plans to make unspecified changes to its contents,” Van Hollen noted. “While the Administration has characterized its proposed changes as ‘technical,’ any actions to alter the USSC’s Summation Report in any way would violate the integrity of this process.”
The State Department declined to comment on government communications about the report. “We are determined to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future and continue to engage with Israel in this regard,” Patel wrote in an email.
A chilling effect
Abu Akleh was not the first journalist killed by Israeli forces. In a report published this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, documented at least 20 instances of Israeli Defense Forces killing members of the media since 2001.
Like Abu Akleh, the majority of those killed — at least 13 — were clearly identified as journalists or inside vehicles with press insignia when they were killed, according to the report. Many more journalists were injured by Israeli forces, which also repeatedly targeted media headquarters. During a military assault on Gaza in 2021, for instance, Israel bombed buildings where more than a dozen local and international media outlets were headquartered, including The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera. As The Intercept has previously reported, Israel also regularly detains and questions Palestinian journalists, including 16 who are currently being held without charges.
“To be a journalist in Palestine is a very dangerous job,” said Ammar al-Dwaik, the director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, Palestine’s national human rights institute, adding that journalists also face daily intimidation by settlers and soldiers.
Al-Dwaik, who was a friend of Abu Akleh, said that her killing was a reminder that nobody was safe from Israeli violence, and that journalists were no exception. “Shireen was visible, in the broad daylight. Soldiers could see her wearing the vest and yet they shot her, which means that no one is safe and everyone could be a target,” he said. “Being a journalist doesn’t give you any protection with Israeli soldiers.”
Nor has being a clearly identifiable journalist led to greater accountability. “The degree to which Israel claims to investigate journalist killings depends largely on external pressure,” Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, wrote in a statement. “There are cursory probes into the deaths of journalists with foreign passports, but that is rarely the case for slain Palestinian reporters. Ultimately, none has seen any semblance of justice.”
In its report, CPJ warned that Israeli violence against journalists has a “chilling effect” that undermines press freedom. That chilling effect, some Palestinian journalists told The Intercept, comes not just in the form of fear but also of a lost sense of purpose and the impression that their lives are considered unworthy.
Those feelings intensified after Abu Akleh was killed. A few days after the shooting, Zabaneh was with a team who traveled to Jenin, to report on Israel’s incursion into the city’s refugee camp. As they parked on the camp’s outskirts, the group of seasoned journalists froze, unsure of what to do. “We were like, do we go in? We got stuck there for 10 minutes before deciding,” said Zabaneh. “We’re not talking about a bunch of rookies. … Everybody’s coming in with at least 10 years of experience. It was like, what do we do now?”
Dalia Hatuqa, a freelance Palestinian American journalist who has written for The Intercept and was a friend of Abu Akleh, echoed those sentiments. “Fear has permeated our work.”
In February, when Israeli settlers invaded the city of Hawara, outside Nablus, setting fire to homes and cars in the most severe episode of settler violence in years, Hatuqa hesitated before deciding not to go cover the news as she would have in the past. “It was a combination of fear, but also of, ‘What’s the point?’” she said. “The whole thing has had a depressive effect on our ability to work.”
Despite the lack of accountability, many members of both the U.S. government and the U.S. media seemed to have moved on, lamented Hatuqa. She noted that at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last week, President Joe Biden spoke of journalists Austin Tice, who has been missing in Syria since 2012, and Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter detained in Russia. Biden made no mention of Abu Akleh. Neither did Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, at a recent event commemorating World Press Freedom Day.
“It’s almost like, it happened, let’s all move on,” Hatuqa said. “But some of us haven’t moved on at all.”
Alice Speri writes about U.S. foreign policy, abuses by military and security forces, and the repression of dissent