Washington, DC – The US Department of State often says that it “has no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens abroad”.
But on Wednesday morning, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh became the second American this year to be killed by Israel – a top recipient of US military aid and Washington’s closest ally in the region.
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Department of State spokesperson Ned Price was quick to condemn the killing and call for an investigation, but later in the day, he confirmed that Washington trusts Israel to investigate itself and would not call for an independent probe.
Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said calls for investigations are “empty gestures” if the probe is to be left for Israel.
“You can’t ask the Israelis to investigate themselves when they’ve been abusing human rights for over 70 years and expect them to arrive at a different result that they’ve been arriving at after all these decades,” Abuznaid told Al Jazeera.
“These are atrocities that the international community has witnessed time and time again – whether recorded on live footage or not – and we have never seen accountability.”
On Wednesday, Price said repeatedly when pressed by reporters at a State Department briefing that Israel has the “wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation” into the killing of Abu Akleh.
He said it is important for Washington for Abu Akleh’s legacy to be honoured with accountability. “Those responsible for Shireen’s killing should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Price told reporters.
But recent incidents show that when Israel carries out investigations into its own forces’ misconduct, meaningful accountability is seldom the outcome, Palestinian rights advocates have said.
Despite multiple eyewitness testimonies saying she was shot by Israeli forces, the Israeli government’s initial reaction to the killing of Abu Akleh was to blame “armed Palestinians” for shooting the journalist.
“History and action has shown that Israel cannot be trusted to investigate its own war crimes, and human rights violations,” Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), told Al Jazeera.
“We demand an independent investigation, free from political pressure and influence from American and Israeli interests.”
In January, 78-year-old US citizen Omar Assad suffered a stress-induced heart attack after he was arbitrarily detained, bound, blindfolded and gagged by Israeli forces.
At the time, the Department of State also called for a “thorough criminal investigation and full accountability” in the case.
In February, the Israeli military called the incident a “clear lapse of moral judgment” and announced administrative disciplinary action against the battalion involved in Assad’s killing but no criminal charges.
At the time, the Department of State suggested that it expects more from the investigation, saying that the US continues to “discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government”.
But since then, next to nothing has been said by US officials about the killing of the elderly American citizen. Asked for an update on the case on Wednesday, a Department of State spokesperson shared comments that Washington had released earlier this year expressing condolences for Assad’s family.
Meanwhile, US officials have continued to heap praise on Israel. And this year, Washington increased its annual $3.8bn military assistance to Israel by an additional $1bn to “replenish” the Iron Dome missile defence system after the May 2021 conflict with Gaza.
When Israel bombed the building of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera in Gaza during that conflict, the Department of State called for additional details backing the Israeli claim that the tower was being used by Hamas operatives.
To date, the US administration has not condemned the bombing of the Gaza building housing media offices or provided an assessment on whether it was justified.
On Wednesday, Price was asked about the targeting of the building a year ago in the context of Israeli attacks on the media and the killing of Abu Akleh. He said, “We voiced our concern by the fact that journalists were put at risk, that their offices came under assault,” adding that those concerns still stand today.
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based think-tank, said calls for an investigation are welcome, but the outcome of such probes is what matters.
“The question is what happens next?” Berry told Al Jazeera. “That’s the key here. What will they do next? Are we expecting the Israeli forces to investigate themselves and find that there’s either a ‘moral lapse in judgment’ or no error was committed?”
The Biden administration has maintained that Israel is equipped to investigate its own alleged war crimes – an argument used against Palestine’s push for an International Criminal Court probe into Israeli abuses.
For her part, Berry decried the lack of accountability for Israel from the US, including when it abuses American citizens.
“Regrettably, because we give Israel an exception in its treatment of not just American citizens, in its human rights abuses – but certainly when it comes to treatment of Americans – you will not arrive to a rational explanation for what it is allowed to do with impunity, counter to the interest of protecting Americans and certainly counter to our own US interests abroad,” Berry told Al Jazeera.
As a candidate, Joe Biden promised a more even-handed approach to the conflict in outreach efforts to Arab- and Muslim-American voters, despite categorically ruling out conditioning aid to Israel.
“Joe Biden believes in the worth and value of every Palestinian and every Israeli,” the Biden campaign said in its platform for Arab Americans in 2021. “He will work to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy.”
Variations of that comment still surface in Department of State and White House statements. However, Palestinian rights advocates say Biden has done little – other than resuming some humanitarian aid to Palestinians – to change the policies of his predecessor Donald Trump on Israel-Palestine.
Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian and president of New Generation for Palestine, an advocacy group, said the killing of Abu Akleh was a “targeted assassination”.
“The tepid response by our State Department confirms what we already knew: The Biden administration couldn’t care less about Palestinian lives, whether they are Americans or not,” he told Al Jazeera.