Maureen Clare Murphy
The Electronic Intifada / November 16, 2022
The Department of Justice in Washington has reportedly informed its Israeli counterpart that the FBI is investigating the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, six months after she was killed while covering a military raid in the northern occupied West Bank.
Abu Akleh, who held US citizenship, was shot in the head while wearing a helmet and a protective vest identifying her as a member of the press.
Israeli leaders say that the government will refuse to cooperate with the US investigation. The Israeli military conducted an investigation of its own, concluding that one of its soldiers is likely responsible for what it said was the journalist’s accidental killing.
The Palestinian Authority, as well as independent investigations by media outlets, human rights groups and the United Nations, have found that Abu Akleh was killed by a well-aimed Israeli sharpshooter’s bullet, which Al-Jazeera, Abu Akleh’s employer, says was manufactured in the US.
Abu Akleh’s status as a US citizen and a prominent Al Jazeera correspondent killed while carrying out her work has generated unusual pressure on the Biden administration to launch a federal investigation.
Her family has tirelessly pressed for accountability, visiting lawmakers in Washington after being snubbed by President Joe Biden during his July trip to Israel and the West Bank.
On Tuesday, Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen’s niece, tweeted a statement from her family welcoming the reports of a US investigation:
“Our family has been asking for a US investigation since the beginning, and it is what the United States should do when a US citizen is killed abroad, especially when they were killed, like Shireen, by a foreign military.”
So far, the Biden administration has treated Abu Akleh’s killing – like that of the approximately 200 other Palestinians slain in the West Bank and Gaza so far this year – as little more than a PR problem, repeatedly deferring to Israel’s long-discredited self-investigation mechanisms.
The State Department announced on 4 July, a major holiday in the US, that its review concluded that an Israeli bullet likely killed Abu Akleh but added, without explanation, that there was “no reason to believe” she was deliberately targeted.
The US has pressed Israel to revise its rules of engagement, only to be rebuffed by Tel Aviv, with outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid insisting that “no one will dictate open-fire regulations to us when we are fighting for our lives.”
Lapid similarly rejected a US investigation, stating during his speech at the inauguration of Israel’s next parliament on Tuesday that “IDF [Israeli military] soldiers will not be interrogated by the FBI or by any foreign body or foreign country, no matter how friendly.”
“We will not abandon IDF soldiers to foreign investigations, and our strong protest has been conveyed to the Americans at the appropriate levels,” Lapid added.
Israeli officials have indicated they are confident that the FBI investigation is a symbolic gesture but as Ben Samuels, a Washington correspondent for the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz put it, “the decision itself is a milestone in a truly unprecedented campaign from Democratic members of Congress pushing a Democratic administration to take a firm stance against Israel.”
Samuels added that regardless of the outcome, “the move is both a stark example and a harbinger of things to come concerning the Democratic Party’s evolving relationship with Israel – particularly as it watches Prime Minister-in-waiting Benjamin Netanyahu begin to form an unprecedentedly right-wing coalition.”
On Monday, more than a dozen Democrat House lawmakers led by André Carson of Indiana introduced the “Justice for Shireen Act” to demand a US investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing.
Previously, more than half of all Democrats in the Senate, led by Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, signed a letter calling for an FBI investigation.
Josh Ruebner, who teaches at Georgetown University and studies US-Israeli relations, told The Electronic Intifada that the FBI’s investigation “is truly unprecedented.”
Ruebner added that “this is the first time that the US has investigated Israel’s killing of a US citizen and is hopefully a turning point in holding Israel accountable for its atrocities against Palestinians and violations of US law.”
He noted that Carson’s bill, if enacted, “would provide Congress with the detailed information needed to hold Israel accountable for violations of US law, potentially resulting in the cutting off of weapons.”
The US provides Israel a floor of $3.8 billion in military assistance per year as stipulated by law, seemingly in contradiction to other legislation that bans such aid to rights-abusing foreign militaries.
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.
The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed the reports of an FBI investigation as an overdue but “important first step toward potentially achieving justice in her case.”
‘Failure to provide justice’
The Palestinian BDS National Committee, the steering body of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, said that the FBI probe “must not end up being yet another cover-up.”
The BNC noted that “the FBI’s failure to provide justice in past Israel-related murder cases of Arab Americans does not bode well for its current investigation,” an apparent reference to the 1985 murder of civil rights leader Alex Odeh in Santa Ana, California.
One of the FBI’s top suspects in that crime is Baruch Ben Yosef, a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose teachings inspired the 1994 Ibrahimi Mosque massacre that left 29 Palestinian men and boys dead at the Hebron/Al-Khalil holy site.
Not only is Ben Yosef living openly in Israel, but Itamar Ben-Gvir, a fellow Jewish supremacist and follower of Kahane, is now a kingmaker in the new ultra-right coalition government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration opposes an investigation of Abu Akleh’s killing by the International Criminal Court, with State Department spokesperson Ned Price saying that it is not “an appropriate venue.” Yet during the same press briefing, Price said the White House welcomed The Hague’s investigation of war crimes in Ukraine.
The US last week voted against a UN resolution requesting a non-binding advisory opinion from the International Criminal Justice regarding Israel’s prolonged occupation and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The measure, introduced by the world body’s decolonization committee, was approved by a wide margin, with 98 countries voting in favor, 52 abstaining and 17 voting against it. The resolution will go to the General Assembly for a final vote.
Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada