Washington, DC – While the United States has called for “accountability” in last year’s killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Washington’s position on the incident has been marred by inconsistencies.
The US government’s definition of “accountability” has shifted over time, as has its position on the need for an independent investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot by Israeli forces a year ago.
Meanwhile, a purported US probe into the incident has not been confirmed, drawing questions from critics as to whether President Joe Biden’s administration values journalistic freedom and accountability.
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Abu Akleh, who was an American citizen, was killed while covering a May 11, 2022, raid in the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank. Several independent investigations have concluded there was no fighting in the immediate area where she was shot, and Al Jazeera Media Network called her killing a “cold-blooded assassination”.
US officials started out by urging the criminal prosecution of Abu Akleh’s killers, but that demand soon dissipated, and the US State Department said Israel reviewing its military rules of engagement would amount to “accountability”.
The Israeli government, which receives at least $3.8bn in US aid annually, explicitly rejected the US demand.
Here, Al Jazeera looks at what US officials have said about the incident and how the Biden administration’s comments have evolved over the past year.
May 11, 2022: Then-State Department spokesperson Ned Price unambiguously calls for bringing those who killed the Al Jazeera correspondent to justice.
“Those responsible for Shireen’s killing should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he says. “The Israelis have the wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation.”
May 13, 2022: Blinken says he is “deeply troubled” by an attack on Abu Akleh’s funeral in East Jerusalem, where Israeli forces beat mourners, including pallbearers who were holding her coffin during the procession. The US, however, fails to denounce the assault.
“We were deeply troubled to see the images of Israeli police intruding into her funeral procession today,” Blinken says. “Every family deserves to be able to lay their loved ones to rest in a dignified and unimpeded manner.”June 7, 2022: Blinken calls for an “independent” investigation.
“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,” he says.
June 9, 2022: In an email to Al Jazeera, a State Department spokesperson appears to backtrack on Blinken’s remarks, omitting the word “independent” from the US position.
“There has been no change in our approach. We continue to call for a thorough, credible investigation that culminates in accountability,” the spokesperson says.
July 4, 2022: The State Department releases a statement saying that gunfire from an Israeli army position “was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh”, but that it found “no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances”.
The statement is not the result of an investigation by Washington; it comes from an evaluation conducted by the US Security Coordinator (USSC) of Israeli and Palestinian probes into what happened, the State Department says, dubbing it a “summation”.
July 15, 2022: Biden describes the killing of Abu Akleh as an “enormous loss” and renews calls for accountability during a visit to the occupied West Bank.
“The United States will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death, and we will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world,” the president says.
August 5, 2022: Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, seems to reject an assertion by a Democratic senator that Blinken called for an independent probe.
Quoting Blinken’s previous statement, Senator Chris Van Hollen asks Leaf during a Senate committee hearing, “Just a simple yes-or-no question, is that still the position of the Biden administration?”
“We have asked that there be a credible investigation,” Leaf responds, seeming to correct the senator. “I will have to come back to you on that, senator, because that has not been my understanding of where our position was.”
September 5, 2022: The State Department welcomes an Israeli report concluding that Abu Akleh was likely killed accidentally by Israeli fire.
“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,” the State Department says in a statement.
September 6, 2022: Washington reiterates that it is pursuing “accountability” by calling on Israel to change its rules of engagement, apparently dropping its previous demand for criminal prosecution.
“The role we’re continuing to play is pressing Israel to closely review its policies and practices to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel says.
A day later, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid would dismiss the American demand. “No one will dictate our rules of engagement to us,” he says.
November 14, 2022: Reports emerge in US media that the Department of Justice is opening an investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh. Israeli officials pledge not to cooperate with the purported probe, and the Department of Justice refuses to confirm or deny its existence.
November 15, 2022: The State Department distances itself from the supposed US investigation.
“That would be for the Department of Justice to speak to,” Patel says when asked about the issue.
“As it relates to any potential law enforcement activity, that would be a matter for the Department of Justice, for them to raise.”
December 6, 2022: The Biden administration expresses opposition to a push by Al Jazeera to ensure accountability for the killing of Abu Akleh at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“We oppose it in this case,” Price at the State Department tells reporters. “We maintain our longstanding objections to the ICC’s investigation into the Palestinian situation.”
March 20, 2023: The State Department releases its annual global human rights report, brushing over the killing of Abu Akleh in the section describing abuses in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
“On September 5, the [Israeli military] 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 [Israeli military] gunfire,” it reads.
“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 criticised the Israeli military’s inquiry, stating it could not replace a criminal investigation.”
May 3, 2023: The State Department says the killing of Abu Akleh was “unintentional” and reiterates that it is seeking accountability by urging Israel to revise its military rules of engagement.
“Since Shireen’s tragic death, we have continued to press Israel to closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagements and consider additional steps to mitigate risk of civilian harm and protect journalists,” Patel says.
Abu Akleh’s relatives and supporters insist that accountability has not been achieved in the case.