Ramallah, occupied West Bank – United States President Joe Biden has claimed that his government is insisting on accountability for the May killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by the Israeli army.
“The United States will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death and will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world,” Biden said on Friday in a joint press conference with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.
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The US president made no mention of Israel’s responsibility for the killing of the 51-year-old veteran Palestinian-American journalist on May 11 while she was reporting in the occupied West Bank.
“She was an American citizen and a proud Palestinian,” said Biden. “I hope that her legacy will inspire more young people to carry on her work of reporting the truth and telling the stories that are too often overlooked.”
The news conference was held at the PA’s presidential compound in Bethlehem in the southern occupied West Bank, during Biden’s four-day tour of the Middle East region between July 13-16.
Critics have accused Biden of failing to take steps towards accountability for Abu Akleh’s killing.
Activists, volunteers and journalists put up billboards and large banners of Abu Akleh across Bethlehem ahead of Biden’s visit. Dozens of Palestinians protested about a kilometre away from the PA’s presidential compound.
No questions were permitted from the press after the conference, but about a dozen journalists wore a black t-shirt with Abu Akleh’s face on it in a sign of protest.
Palestinian journos, many who are friends and colleagues of #ShireenAbuAkleh attend the press conference of @POTUS and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. They won’t be allowed to ask questions but they spoke regardless. They’re wearing a shirt demanding #JusticeForShireen. pic.twitter.com/BqNEXm4P7p
— Nida' Ibrahim (@nida_journo) July 15, 2022
A United Nations investigation concluded that the bullet that killed the veteran journalist was fired by Israeli forces.
The Biden administration, however, angered Palestinians when the State Department acknowledged earlier this month that the fatal bullet that struck Abu Akleh likely came from an Israeli army position, but it framed the killing as the unintentional “result of tragic circumstances”.
Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi said Biden’s “statement of intent” on Abu Akleh are part and parcel of favourable US policy towards Israel.
“This is symptomatic of the sense of guarding Israel’s impunity, of preventing Israel from facing accountability in any way shape or form,” Ashrawi told Al Jazeera.
“You had the opportunity, you adopted Israel’s position and that’s it – you are trying to whitewash the situation,” continued Ashrawi. “It’s not just Shireen – it’s all Palestinians. We need to see a sense of justice.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based watchdog, “cautiously” welcomed Biden’s pledge to ensure accountability for the killing on Friday. But it said the group is “disappointed” that the president did not commit to a probe by the FBI or meet with the slain journalist’s family during his visit.
“The Biden administration must understand that the campaign to bring real justice for Shireen is not going away and that any perception of indifference towards journalists would be a huge disservice to the human rights the US president claims to cherish,” Sherif Mansour, CPJ Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator, said in a statement.
Speaking in Bethlehem, Biden said his “commitment to the goal of the two state solution has not changed”.
“Two states along the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon swaps remains the best way to achieve equal measures of security, prosperity, freedom and democracy for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis,” said Biden, adding that the “Palestinian people deserve a state of their own that is independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous.”
President Joe Biden has insisted the US will continue to call for a full accounting on the killing of Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead by Israeli forces in May ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/jxHOwk95hz
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) July 15, 2022
The US president also announced that Palestinian mobile phone companies in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip will be allowed to connect to 4G networks by the end of 2023.
Despite his statements, Biden has come under criticism for the small amount of time that has been allocated for meetings with Palestinian officials during his visit, as well as his failure to take a strong political stance towards Israel’s continued building of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Al Jazeera correspondent John Holman said it’s evident that there has been “no movement on the two state solution.”
“President Biden has said he’s committed to that but he hasn’t gone any further and its pretty clear that that is fairly low on the agenda for him,” added Holman.
During the Bethlehem press conference, Abbas called for Biden to re-open the US consulate in occupied East Jerusalem, and remove the Palestinian Liberation Organisation from the US’s “terror” list, adding “we are not terrorists”.
He also called for a pushback against “racial discrimination” and “apartheid” against the Palestinian people.
Under Trump, the US government recognised the whole of Jerusalem – including the occupied eastern half – as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
In a joint press conference held by Biden and Lapid on Thursday, Biden said that his visit to occupied East Jerusalem did not signal a reversal of that recognition.
Trump also recognised Israeli sovereignty over the 1967-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, closed down the Palestinian representative office in Washington, and shut the US consulate to Palestinians in Jerusalem. He also cut financial support to the PA and funding to the UN’s refugee agency (UNRWA), among other things.
Al Jazeera bureau chief Walid al-Omary said Biden’s visit to Bethlehem is “just a formality – nothing more,” pointing out the discrepancy in time allocated for the two sides.
“He will spend 45 minutes in Bethlehem, as opposed to 45 hours” in Israel, he said.
“It’s clear that the US president is not giving anything to the Palestinians other than some aid or attempts to show that he pressured Israel to provide some procedures,” added al-Omary.
After the conference, Biden headed to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to fly directly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the last stop of his Middle East trip later on Friday.
During a visit to a hospital in occupied East Jerusalem, a nurse spoke to US President Joe Biden to demand “more justice and more dignity” for Palestinians ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/0gTK6CoXLw
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) July 15, 2022
Occupied East Jerusalem visit
Prior to heading to the occupied West Bank, Biden visited the Augusta Victoria hospital in occupied East Jerusalem, where he announced some $100m in financial assistance to the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network (EJHN), conditioned upon approval from the US Congress.
“These hospitals are the backbone of the Palestinian health care system,” Biden said in a press conference at the hospital on Friday morning.
“The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been proud to support this network of hospitals with $85 million since 2014 as part of our commitment to support health and dignity to the Palestinian people,” he added.
Biden is the first sitting US president to visit occupied East Jerusalem outside of the Old City.
A small Palestinian protest took place outside the hospital calling for justice and accountability for Abu Akleh. Israeli police blocked the protest from advancing.
At the hospital, Biden also announced some $200m in aid to the United Nation’s refugee agency, UNRWA, which is the key humanitarian agency for millions of Palestinian refugees.
Biden’s resumption of aid comes following his predecessor Donald Trump’s decisions to cut all financial support for the agency.
Reporting from outside the hospital, Holman said the only thing the US is offering Palestinians is money.
“More than 300 million dollars in aid, some of that is subject to approval, help for some of the hospitals, some financial help for the economy ” said Holman. “Is that going to be enough to satisfy Palestinians and their authorities – no.”
Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday, and spent the whole of Thursday in the country, meeting both the Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog.
Apart from the expected announcement of a resumption of financial assistance to the PA and humanitarian institutions, Biden has not reversed any of Trump’s policies.
Senior Al Jazeera analyst Marwan Bishara said that it was becoming evident that the US was “giving up its responsibility of being a serious player in bringing an end to the conflict”.
By only announcing financial aid to the Palestinians, “the occupation of Palestine, apartheid in Palestine, is no longer looked at as a political issue, as a national issue,” Bishara said.
“It’s being looked at as some humanitarian issue that needs a subsidy of some sort.”