Washington, DC – The Biden administration’s handling of the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh has infuriated Palestinian rights advocates who say Washington continues to ensure impunity for Israeli abuses even when they target journalists and United States citizens.
The US Department of State announced on Monday that gunfire from Israeli positions “was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh”, but it dismissed the incident as the unintentional “result of tragic circumstances”.
The statement added that the killing of the Palestinian-American journalist came as Israeli forces were conducting a “military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad on May 11, 2022, in Jenin, which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel”.
“The State Department’s statement was an effort to split the difference between both sides,” said Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American analyst and senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC. “And instead of coming down on the side of truth, they came down on the side of equivocation. They really had an opportunity to take a stand and do the right thing, but they clearly failed to do so.”
Advocates took issue with the timing, wording and structure of Monday’s statement. For instance, the announcement was made public on July 4 – US Independence Day – a major national holiday when many people are spending time with their families and not focusing on the news.
The statement opened with proclaiming that the origin of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was inconclusive.
“After an extremely detailed forensic analysis, independent, third-party examiners, as part of a process overseen by the US Security Coordinator (USSC), could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh,” the State Department said.
“Ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged, which prevented a clear conclusion.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price stressed on Tuesday that the USSC, a State Department-led office that oversees international security assistance and coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA), did not conduct its own probe, but that its conclusion was a “summation” of investigations by the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Last week, the Biden administration offered to examine the bullet that killed Abu Akleh after the Palestinian Authority had refused to hand it over to Israel.
Pressed on how the office was able to determine intent – or lack thereof – when it did not conduct its own investigation or interview the shooter, Price said: “The USSC was granted access to the IDF [Israeli military] investigation, just as the team was granted access to the PA investigation. So this summary of the investigations … led the USSC team to this finding that the bullet likely emanated from an IDF position, and that the tragic killing of Shireen Abu Akleh was not in fact intentional.”
He added that the conclusion was “analytic” not “scientific”.
Press freedom and rights groups as well as lawmakers in Washington have been calling for a comprehensive, independent or US-led investigation into the killing.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based watchdog, reiterated those calls and urged accountability for the killing of Abu Akleh on Tuesday.
“The US should either take the lead in investigating Abu Akleh’s death in a fully credible and transparent manner, or it should support international efforts to seek justice on behalf of her and her family,” Sherif Mansour, CPJ Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator, said in a statement.
Washington has already rejected the International Criminal Court’s involvement in the case.
Independent probes blame Israel
Eyewitnesses and multiple investigations by US media outlets, including CNN, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and the New York Times, have previously concluded that Israeli forces fatally shot Abu Akleh.
A probe by the Palestinian Authority also found that Abu Akleh was deliberately shot by Israeli troops. After the incident, Al Jazeera Media Network accused Israeli forces of assassinating the journalist “in cold blood“.
Investigations and video evidence show that there were no armed Palestinians in the area where Abu Akleh was killed, and that she and other journalists were in identifiable press gear.
Israeli forces continued to shoot in the direction of the area where Abu Akleh was standing after first injuring her colleague Ali al-Samoudi, even as no fire was being returned. The Israeli bullets kept flying after Abu Akleh was killed as colleagues and bystanders attempted to retrieve her body.
Still, the US statement emphasised that the Israeli raid was targeting Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters in response to past attacks by Palestinian assailants.
“Mentioning the militants was a way to reinforce the preferred Israeli narrative that they were acting in self-defence,” Munayyer, of the Arab Center Washington DC, told Al Jazeera. “But shooting a journalist in the head is in no way an act of self-defence, no matter what other circumstances are involved.”
He added that the administration is addressing the killing of Abu Akleh as a political issue – “not about justice”.
Munayyer said Washington wanted to sweep the incident under the rug “as swiftly and as neatly as possible” ahead of a visit by President Joe Biden to Israel and Saudi Arabia later this month.
“With their statement, they really missed the mark. And this issue is not going away as much as the Israelis might want to make it go away,” he said of the killing of Abu Akleh.
‘Systematic’ mistreatment of Palestinians
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based think-tank, noted that Abu Akleh is the second US citizen to be killed by Israel this year. Omar Assad, an elderly Palestinian American, died after being arbitrarily detained by Israeli troops in the West Bank in January.
Echoing Munayyer’s comment, Berry said the US administration appears to have wanted to “tie up loose ends” before Biden travels to Israel next week.
“But the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh is not a loose end; the killing of Omar is not a loose end. These are issues that are systematic of the way that Israel treats Palestinians, whether they are Americans or not,” Berry told Al Jazeera.
“So, we have before us a very real problem – and that is an administration that does not seem to engage sufficiently on this issue. Therefore, the status quo is allowed to continue.
“The situation is deteriorating on the ground every single day for Palestinians. And then on top of that, we have these cases of individual Americans who have been killed,” she said.
Berry expressed “complete disappointment” with the administration’s response to the killing of Abu Akleh “from day one”. She stressed that the US is not an impartial player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; rather, Washington enables Israeli abuses with “unequivocal blind support, both financial and political”, she said.
Israel receives $3.8bn in US military support annually.
Berry called for increased civic engagement and intensifying calls for an investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh.
Other Arab-American advocates are already warning Democrats that Biden’s policy on Israel-Palestine may affect how the community will vote in the crucial midterm US elections in November.
Hatem Abudayyeh, national chair of the US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN), an advocacy group, said most Arab Americans don’t live in a “fantasy world” thinking that Biden’s Democratic Party can bring justice to Palestinians, noting that most Democratic politicians “won’t even defend and call for accountability for US citizens like Omar Assad and Shireen Abu Akleh”.
“Immigrants, Black people, Arabs and other oppressed communities of colour voted for the Democrats in the last national election, yes, but those were votes against [former President Donald] Trump more than they were votes for Biden or the Democrats,” Abudayyeh said. “Neither choice is very great for us these days.”