US clears Israel of intentionally killing Shireen Abu Akleh

Protesters demonstrate against the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh in Paris on 11 May (Anne Paq - ActiveStills)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  July 4, 2022

On the day that the US celebrates its so-called independence on colonized land, Washington signed off on Israel’s clearing itself of direct responsibility for the killing of prominent Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

statement attributed to Ned Price, spokesperson for the US State Department, said that American officials “could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed” Abu Akleh because it was too badly damaged.

Price’s statement added that US officials “concluded that gunfire from IDF [Israeli military] positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh.”

But the State Department seemingly attempted to justify Abu Akleh’s killing by saying that US officials “found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad … which followed a series of terrorist attacks on Israel.”

Abu Akleh’s family said in a statement that it was “incredulous” following the State Department announcement.

The family pointed to the “numerous eyewitnesses to the killing” and the independent investigations from “multiple local and international media outlets, human rights organizations and the United Nations.”

Those probes all concluded that Abu Akleh was shot by Israeli soldiers and there was no Palestinian gunfire or militants nearby at the time. Some of those probes indicated that Abu Akleh was deliberately targeted.

Yet the US has persistently deferred to Israel’s long discredited self-investigations and pressured the Palestinian Authority to hand over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh for ballistics testing.

The Palestinian Authority meanwhile demanded that Israel hand over the rifle fired by a member of an elite Israeli military unit during the raid in Jenin.

Israel also zeroed in on the bullet as a means of deflecting responsibility to the PA while it has not released any of the drone and body camera footage or the GPS locations of its soldiers present in Jenin at the time of Abu Akleh’s killing.

The Abu Akleh family said that “the focus on the bullet has always been misplaced … as if this were some kind of police whodunit that could be solved by a CSI-style forensic test,” referring to the American police procedural television series.

“The truth is that the Israeli military killed Shireen according to policies that view all Palestinians – civilian, press or otherwise – as legitimate targets,” the family added.

The family called on Washington to open an “open, transparent and thorough investigation” and “clarify the extent to which American funds were involved in Shireen’s killing.”

‘US-backed Israeli whitewash’

The US probe into Abu Akleh’s killing was led by Michael R. Fenzel a US lieutenant general who oversees so-called security ties between Israel and the Palestinians.

Someone with a vested interest in maintaining the Palestinian Authority’s role as a security subcontractor for the Israeli occupation is hardly an independent observer.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, described the State Department statement as a “US-backed Israeli whitewash.”

Through a spokesperson, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, demanded that “the US hold the Israeli government fully responsible for the crime of killing the martyr Abu Akleh.”

Akram al-Khatib, the Palestinian Authority attorney general who led Ramallah’s investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing, rejected the conclusions of the US probe. He said that “the technical data in our possession indicates that the condition of the shell is viable for matching with the firearm [that shot it].”

The Palestinian Authority foreign ministry said that it would pursue justice for Abu Akleh at the International Criminal Court.

Abu Akleh, a veteran Al-Jazeera correspondent and a US citizen, was shot and killed while covering an Israeli raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin on 11 May. Her producer, Ali Samoudi, was shot in the back and survived.

Abu Akleh was wearing a protective vest and helmet identifying her as a journalist when she was killed.

The State Department added that it would “remain engaged with Israel and the PA [Palestinian Authority] on next steps and urge accountability.”

The US has, however, given Israel the benefit of the doubt every step of the way after Abu Akleh’s killing.

Israel determined ahead of the conclusion of its military’s self-investigation that no soldier would face criminal charges for Abu Akleh’s death.

By definition, according to Israel, her killing could not be a crime because it was a “combat event” – a baseless interpretation of international law that Tel Aviv relies upon to justify its lax open fire regulations resulting in the fatalities of countless Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers are almost never tried and convicted over abuses against Palestinians, and certainly not their commanders or the authors of military policy.

Israeli police meanwhile determined that no police officers will be punished for attacking the pallbearers carrying the slain journalist’s coffin, nearly causing them to drop it, during her funeral in Jerusalem.

PR crisis

Both the US and Israel have treated Abu Akleh’s killing as a public relations crisis rather than a crime demanding justice and accountability.

The State Department’s insistence that the US reached its conclusion “after an extremely detailed forensic analysis” is unlikely to change the perception that it is party to a cover-up.

Nor is the statement’s timing, shortly before US President Joe Biden travels to Israel, the occupied West Bank and Saudi Arabia. The White House has stated that Biden intends to reinforce Washington’s “ironclad commitment to Israel’s security.”

The US provides at least $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel per year.

Biden is also overlooking the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA has concluded was committed with the approval of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Biden’s visit will be the first meeting between a US president and Saudi leadership since Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment with a bone saw inside the oil-rich kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

An unnamed senior White House official who briefed journalists said that Washington seeks to “recalibrate relations” rather than rupturing them “because Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades.”

Saudi Arabia is also the United States’ largest arms customer, accounting for a quarter of US weapons sold worldwide.

The bullet that killed Shireen Abu Akleh was designed and manufactured in the US, according to Al-Jazeera.

Abu Akleh’s killing has attracted rare attention from US Congress, with some 60 legislators, including half of all Democratic senators, calling on the Biden administration to launch an investigation.

The 1997 Leahy Law prohibits the US from providing military assistance to units of foreign militaries when there is credible information that those units violated human rights with impunity.

That law is named for Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who signed on to a letter to the Biden administration calling for a US investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing.

As The New York Times observed, the “need for a resolution” regarding her killing “became more urgent in recent days because it threatened to overshadow discussions” during Biden’s visit to Israel.

‘Biden loves Israel’

Abu Akleh is one of only several Palestinians killed in Jenin in recent weeks.

The UN monitoring group OCHA stated last week that “Israeli forces have shot and killed 26 Palestinians, including six children, during search-and-arrest operations across the West Bank” since the beginning of the year, with nearly half of those fatalities occurring in Jenin.

The UN human rights office stated last week that it “is alarmed by the impact of intensified Israeli forces’ operations on the right to life of Palestinians” in the West Bank.

The human rights office said that many of the cases it monitored “indicated that Israeli forces used lethal force in a manner that appears totally inconsistent with international human rights law.”

The State Department didn’t acknowledge those additional deaths or express concerns over Israel’s use of force in its statement.

Meanwhile, Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, tweeted a video of himself grilling hotdogs with Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the US.

“Looking forward to our own official celebration tomorrow in Jerusalem,” Nides said in his tweet on Monday.

Nides told the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz that “Joe Biden is coming here for the Israeli people.”

“Joe Biden calls himself a Zionist,” Nides added, referring to Israel’s state ideology.

“Joe Biden loves Israel.”

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada