State Department human rights report whitewashes Shireen Abu Akleh killing

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  March 23, 2023

The State Department’s annual human rights report accepts Israel’s dubious story on Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing.

The US State Department’s annual report on human rights accepts the Israeli government’s version of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s death and does not cite it as an extrajudicial or arbitrary killing.

Israeli forces killed Abu Akleh on May 11, 2022 while covering Israel’s invasion of a Jenin refugee camp and wearing a vest that was clearly marked PRESS.

The only reference to the late Al Jazeera reporter can be found under a section on freedom of expression under the report’s Israel, Gaza, and West Bank portion. “On May 11, Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed while reporting on an IDF raid in Jenin,” it reads.

“In the same incident, Palestinian journalist Ali Samoudi was shot and injured in the shoulder.  On September 5, the IDF reported it had concluded its investigation into the circumstances surrounding Abu Akleh’s death and stated there is a high possibility she was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire.  According to media, the military advocate general stated there was no suspicion of a criminal offense and declined to open a criminal investigation into the incident.  Some human rights NGOs criticized the IDF’s inquiry, stating it could not replace a criminal investigation.”

The Israeli government initially tried to blame Abu Akleh’s death on “dueling gunfire” between the IDF and Palestinian militants. However, this was quickly disproved by video footage, eyewitness testimony, and multiple media investigations

Israel launched its own probe into the incident and released a “report” on the killing four months later. The IDF acknowledged that there was a “high possibility” that the bullet came from an Israeli soldier but said it was an accident and declared that no one would face criminal charges.

The senior IDF official who briefed reporters on the results of the probe reiterated the dueling gunfire myth. “It is our estimate that there were militants in the vicinity of Ms. Abu Akleh. Maybe not one meter beside her, but they were in that area​,” he said, providing no evidence to support that claim.

The US State Department had publicly been calling for “accountability” in the months leading up to the Israeli report but provided very little in way of details.

Secretary of State Tony Blinken was confronted about the issue by the journalist Abby Martin at an event in Los Angeles and told her, “We are looking for an independent, credible investigation. When that investigation happens, we will follow the facts, wherever they lead. It’s as straightforward as that.”

However, the State Department seemingly welcomed the Israeli probe despite the fact that it wasn’t independent or credible. “We welcome Israel’s review of this tragic incident and again underscore the importance of accountability in this case, such as policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future,” said former State Department spokesperson Ned Price at the time.

In November 2022, amid mounting pressure from Abu Akleh’s family, activists around the globe, and a number of congressional Democrats, the FBI announced that it was launching its own investigation into the killing. The Biden administration was reportedly unaware of the move before it happened.

Israel immediately declared that it would refuse to cooperate with the investigation. “Our soldiers will not be investigated by the FBI or by any other foreign country or entity, however friendly it may be. We will not abandon our soldiers to foreign investigations,” declared then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

The following month Al-Jazeera announced that it was submitting a case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the killing. The request includes a dossier on the network’s own six-month investigation into Abu Akleh’s death. The Biden administration immediately expressed their opposition to such a probe. “When it comes to the ICC, we maintain our longstanding objections to the ICC’s investigation into the Palestinian situation and the – and the position the ICC should focus on its core mission, and that core mission of serving as a court of last resort in punishing and deterring atrocity crimes,” said Price.

The State Department’s human rights report also neglects to mention Omar Asaad, the 80-year-old Palestinian-American who died shortly after being placed in Israeli custody in January 2022. Assad reportedly suffered a heart attack after being dragged out of his car by IDF soldiers, bound, gagged, and left in a cold abandoned warehouse for hours. 

The State Department report does criticize some Israeli policies and acknowledges that the IDF and civilian justice systems rarely hold members of security forces accountable. It also mentions that NGOs like Military Court Watch, HaMoked, and B’Tselem have accused the Israeli military of using isolation to punish “politically prominent Palestinian detainees.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss