Last May, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli forces. Since then, her family has pushed the United States government for one thing: an independent investigation into her killing that leads to real accountability. The Take looks into the push for justice in the US and why it has been so difficult to achieve.
In this episode:
- Lina Abu Akleh (@LinaAbuAkleh), niece of Shireen Abu Akleh
- Katherine Gallagher (@katherga1), Human Rights Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights (@theCCR)
- Said Arikat (@SMArikat), journalist
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It has been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions, our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: For decades, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was an icon on television screens across the Middle East. And when she was killed by Israeli forces on May 11, her loss was felt deeply.
Halla Mohieddeen: Especially among her fellow Palestinians. But for Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen’s niece, the grief is far more intimate.
Lina Abu Akleh: I think the most thing that I miss is preparing our, um, breakfasts together on weekends. We had our like designated stations. She would be preparing, uh, the eggs and the tea while I would set up the table. And that was actually the last Sunday we spent together, was preparing breakfast as a family.
Halla Mohieddeen: Since Shireen’s killing, Lina’s had to take on a role no relative ever wants to fill.
Lina Abu Akleh: For the past over 100 days now, I’ve been calling for justice and accountability for the murder of my one and only aunt, Shireen Abu Akleh.
Halla Mohieddeen: In our last episode, we examined the circumstances around Shireen’s killing and Israel’s investigation of it. Today, a look at the push for accountability in the United States.
I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.
Halla Mohieddeen: If you’ve been following Shireen’s case, you’ve probably heard Lina Abu Akleh talk about her aunt.
Lina Abu Akleh: She was like a mother to me, like my second mother, definitely like my oldest sister, best friend. She was everything.
Halla Mohieddeen: Can you tell us what you were doing when you first found out that something had happened to your aunt?
Lina Abu Akleh: I was actually asleep. It was around, um, 6:45, closer to seven, when I received a phone call from my father who was in Somalia, where he works with the UN. He told me that “you need to check on your aunt, she’s been injured”. And while I was on the phone with him, a friend of mine also texted me “Lina, we heard your aunt has been shot. Is that true? Or is this fake news?”
Halla Mohieddeen: Pictures started appearing on social media, even though Lina had no idea what was going on. She got in touch with Shireen’s colleagues, who weren’t sure how to tell her what had happened. Eventually, they broke the news to her – and then, to the rest of the world.
Newsreel: Let me bring you some breaking news. An Al Jazeera correspondent has been shot by Israeli forces. We understand that she’s been killed
Lina Abu Akleh: I remember it was just, we were all just screaming in the house because it was, it was a moment of disbelief. It was in that moment that I realised that, for the first time ever, Shireen is the breaking news and not the one breaking the news. So that is something that I never ever imagined.
Halla Mohieddeen: I can’t imagine how many interviews you’ve done since Shireen was killed. How are you?
Lina Abu Akleh: I’m, I’m okay. It’s definitely been a tough few months now. Tough is even an understatement. It, it’s not easy, grief isn’t easy. It definitely comes in waves. It’s not the easiest thing, but we’re trying.
Halla Mohieddeen: I can imagine. And you really haven’t had any closure yet at this point, have you?
Lina Abu Akleh: No, there hasn’t been any closure. There hasn’t been any justice. It’s just been very frustrating to wake up every day and knowing that your aunt is no longer with you. That you lost your best friend and no one has been held accountable for her killing.
Halla Mohieddeen: Shireen’s fame as a journalist has brought a lot of attention to her case. But there’s another part of her identity that’s opened up an avenue for accountability. And that’s her American citizenship.
Halla Mohieddeen: So the Abu Akleh family has a key demand: a US-led investigation into Shireen’s killing. In the aftermath of her death, Biden administration officials have also talked about the importance of an investigation. Here’s Antony Blinken, secretary of state:
Antony Blinken: We’re looking for an independent credible investigation.
Halla Mohieddeen: The White House deputy press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre:
Karine Jean-Pierre: We call for a thorough investigation to determine the circumstances of her death.
Halla Mohieddeen: And Ned Price, spokesman for the United States Department of State:
Ned Price: We call for an immediate and thorough investigation and full accountability.
Halla Mohieddeen: But who would do that investigation, and what it would look like hasn’t been settled.
Lina Abu Akleh: It’s just been merely statements at this point, and this is what we are fed up from, especially us as a family. We appreciated all their statements, sympathies and condolences, but this is the time where we want to see meaningful action.
Halla Mohieddeen: Those comments you heard from members of the Biden administration came out in May and June. And then on July 4, the State Department released a statement. The US security coordinator, a military general based in Jerusalem, did a forensic analysis and ballistic analysis. They also summarised the findings from the Israeli military and the Palestinian authority investigations. Based on that, the State Department said that gunfire from the Israeli military was likely responsible for Shireen’s death. And they also said they found no reason to believe her killing was intentional.
Lina Abu Akleh: When the US State Department released that statement that was just damaging to the truth. We were shocked.
Halla Mohieddeen: Nine days later, US President Biden left on a tour of the Middle East. His first stop: Israel and Palestine.
Newsreel: As President Biden prepares to visit Israel and the occupied West Bank. The United States is facing accusations it’s whitewashing the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
Joe Biden: The connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep.
Halla Mohieddeen: What’s the outreach been like from the administration? Did they get in touch with you at all ahead of the trip? Was there any effort made to try and meet with you guys?
Lina Abu Akleh: We requested it so many times we continued to tell them we would like to meet the president but there wasn’t even enough coordination from their end. We were the ones who were reaching out, to try to understand what their next steps are and trying to ask them to meet with the president.
Halla Mohieddeen: And how does that make you feel?
Lina Abu Akleh: It feels like we have been neglected. The president was like 10 minutes away from our family’s house, from Shireen’s house, from where Shireen was born and raised. And he still did not make any effort or any time to meet with our family. That’s why, as a family, we said, we will have to go to DC and take matters into our own hands.
Halla Mohieddeen: So that’s what happened. A couple of weeks after Biden’s trip, Lina and her family made one of their own. They flew to Washington, DC to meet with the US secretary of state.
Lina Abu Akleh: We met with Secretary Antony Blinken when we were in DC a few weeks ago with my family. We continued to stress on our demand for a US led investigation. We expressed our disappointment and outrage over that statement that they released. This was not an investigation it was merely a statement of a few paragraphs summarizing the Israeli investigation, which we haven’t seen and the PA investigative report that was published.
Halla Mohieddeen: And it’s not just the sourcing the Abu Akleh family took issue with, but the conclusions.
Lina Abu Akleh: So it was very frustrating that they said that they didn’t have anyone qualified to determine intent, but they had to go that extra mile and write it on the statement that it was not intentional. Shireen’s killing was not intentional.
Halla Mohieddeen: So what could the US government be doing instead? We asked a lawyer with a deep knowledge of cases like Shireen’s.
Katherine Gallagher: I’m Katherine Gallagher. I’m a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.
Halla Mohieddeen: Katherine has worked with families of American citizens killed by Israel before, that includes the families of Rachel Corrie.
Newsreel: she was killed in the Garza strip by an Israeli army bulldozer. In 2003, Corrie was trying to obstruct the demolition of a Palestinian home.
Halla Mohieddeen: And Furkan Dogan who was aboard a flotilla meant to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza back in 2010.
Newsreel: Commanders lower themselves from the helicopters and onto the Mavi Marmara. That’s the lead ship in a flotilla of six vessels, which are carrying aid for the Palestinian territory.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now, Katherine’s also consulting the Abu Akleh family. So we asked her what recourse they might have.
Halla Mohieddeen: Normally, if a citizen is killed abroad, the US might provide support to the family, but leave the investigation in the hands of the country where the crime happened. That doesn’t make sense here, Katherine says.
Katherine Gallagher: Shireen was killed by a foreign military. And so in this case, it should be that the United States is involved. It would be strange to leave the investigation of a US citizen, killed by a foreign military, to that very government.
Halla Mohieddeen: So given that point, there are a few options the US government has to investigate on its own.
Katherine Gallagher: The United States has been a signatory to the Geneva conventions for decades and the Geneva conventions, among other things prohibit the targeting and the killing of civilians, and certainly journalists are among the most protected.
Halla Mohieddeen: Back in 1996, the US codified its obligations under the Geneva Conventions, under something called the War Crimes Statute.
Katherine Gallagher: That War Crimes Statute actually has not been used in any cases to date. But there is a specialized unit that has been set up and expanded within the Department of Justice called the Human Rights and Special Prosecution’s Bureau. And that office we know, is looking into potential war crimes, committed in the context of the Ukraine armed conflict. And we know that because attorney general Merrick Garland went to Ukraine in June.
Merrick Garland: The United States is sending an unmistakable message. There is no place to hide. We will, we and our partners will pursue every avenue available to make sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable.
Halla Mohieddeen: And on that trip, Garland announced something new: a team focused specifically on war crimes accountability.
Katherine Gallagher: So, if they’re investigating, as they should, the killing and wounding of US journalists in Ukraine, they should also be investigating the killing of a US journalist that the United States has recognized has been killed by a foreign government, Israel.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now, we asked the Department of Justice about this. Are they investigating Shireen’s killing? Will this war crimes bureau be focused only on Ukraine? They declined to comment. But even if the Department of Justice does not proceed with a criminal investigation, other agencies could get involved.
Katherine Gallagher: The State Department could be gathering information and making recommendations and responses. In the case of, Jamal Khashoggi, another journalist who was killed. We saw the State Department act on public information and investigations carried out by the CIA and other executive agencies to decide to revoke visas to Saudi Arabian citizens. We saw the Treasury Department respond in the Khashoggi case by issuing sanctions against certain Saudi officials.
Halla Mohieddeen: We haven’t seen any action like that taken yet either.
Halla Mohieddeen: Katherine did mention something she wouldn’t like to see from the US. And that’s interference with other inquiries into Shireen’s death – like an investigation from the International Criminal Court.
Katherine Gallagher: The International Criminal Court has an ongoing investigation into war crimes, crimes against humanity, and potentially genocide committed on the territory of Palestine. And Shireen’s killing falls within the scope of what could be investigated at the ICC
Halla Mohieddeen: Back in 2021, when the ICC launched this investigation, the US said it was firmly opposed to the court’s decision. That opposition was controversial; here’s an exchange between Associated Press journalist Matt Lee and State Department spokesperson Ned Price at the time.
Matt Lee: Where should the Palestinians go to get accountability for what they claim to be, uh, problems, to Israeli courts? Where, where do they go?
Ned Price: Matt? Look, we, uh, of course, um, the United States is always going to stand up for uh human rights. Uh, we’re always going to stand up.
Matt Lee: Where do they go? Where do they go? Where? Where?
Ned Price: Uh Matt? That is why I think you, that is why you have heard. Continue to endorse and to call for a two-state solution to this long running conflict.
Matt Lee: Should they go to the Israeli courts? Where do they go?
Ned Price: A two-state solution, because it protects Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, but also, uh, because it will give the Palestinians a viable state of their own, where they go their legitimate, uh,
Matt Lee: Where do they go? Where do they go? Where do they go? Where do they go?
Ned Price: –aspirations for dignity and self-determination.
Halla Mohieddeen: But no matter what the US government does or doesn’t do, Shireen’s family has another option. They can go forward with a civil court case.
Katherine Gallagher: But it should not be that it’s up to the Abu Akleh family through a civil action to carry out its own independent investigation and get answers about who killed Shireen. And it shouldn’t be on their shoulders, to individually hold the Israeli government responsible for her killing that obligation should be born by the United States, in light of the fact that Shireen is a US citizen, as well as the fact that the US has continued to provide, such significant economic military, diplomatic, political support to Israel. The US owes it to its citizens, and to the Abu Akleh family, to hold Israel accountable.
Halla Mohieddeen: And plenty of US lawmakers agree with Katherine. More on that after a quick break.
Newsreel: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for coming here today and being with the Abu Akleh family.
Halla Mohieddeen: Back in July, when the Abu Akleh family spoke with Secretary Blinken, they also went to the US Capitol. And they held a press conference, where they were joined by several US lawmakers who also want answers about Shireen’s killing. Here’s Lina again.
Lina Abu Akleh: Knowing that we are not alone in this journey, uh, gives us a bit of hope knowing that we have the support of over 80 members of Congress, knowing that we have all the allies at the Hill, gives us that sense of comfort that there might be, some sort of a transparent led investigation.
Halla Mohieddeen: Dozens of lawmakers have pushed for more US involvement – and pushed back against what the US has done so far.
Halla Mohieddeen: For example, on July 12, a group of senators sent a letter to the State Department about their investigation, with a list of questions about their findings. They asked for a response within two weeks. By August 4, they hadn’t received one. So that day, at a hearing, Senator Chris Van Hollen questioned a State Department official whether they’d seen the letter.
Chris Van Hollen: Have you seen that one?
Barbara Leaf: I have not.
Chris Van Hollen: I, I urge you to look at that. I mean, this is, this is why a lot of us are concerned.
Halla Mohieddeen: Again, that was August 4 – a month ago.
Chris Van Hollen: We asked for a response by last week. Okay. Um, so if you could get back to us maybe later today to tell us when we can expect a response on, on that. And we asked for…
Halla Mohieddeen: Senator Van Hollen’s office has been pushing for answers to their questions from the State Department; as of the time we publish this, they haven’t received them.
Chris Van Hollen: So, I just, there are a number of us that are not gonna allow this to be swept under the rug.
Halla Mohieddeen: We submitted the same questions and haven’t gotten any information either. The State Department only told us they won’t comment on their conversations with Congress. Van Hollen and some of his colleagues have also introduced a provision that would require the State Department to produce a report for Congress into quote – the shooting death of Shireen. That could impact the $3.8 billion in military aid Israel receives from the US each year. But there’s still quite a bit to be done before it’s passed – if it gets passed at all.
Halla Mohieddeen: For journalists who cover the State Department, being roadblocked isn’t something new. We talked to one of them.
Said Arikat: My name’s Said Arikat. I am a Palestinian journalist here in Washington, DC. I have been covering the State Department for over 20, some odd years, maybe 25 years or so.
Halla Mohieddeen: Let’s just start with an interaction that you had with the US State Department spokesman Ned Price, uh, back on May 11th. That was the day that Shireen was killed.
Said Arikat: I just want to ask you, do you trust Israel investigating itself? I mean, I have asked this question over the past 20 years, so many times.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now you’ve mentioned that you have asked the US government the same question for decades. What sort of responses have you got over the years?
Said Arikat: Same old worn out response.
Ned Price: The Israelis have the wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough comprehensive investigation
Said Arikat: Of course they do, but they never do. I mean, you know, saying that they have the capability to do something. And doing it actually in a fair and free manner are entirely two different things. It’s very difficult for anyone that commits a crime to investigate themselves. And that’s why you always need a third party.
Halla Mohieddeen: In one of the interactions that you had, you mentioned when you were speaking to Ned Price, that Shireen had been in that briefing room with you.
Said Arikat: She was with us in this room!
Ned Price: And it is important to us. Remember that it is important to us, that her legacy uh, be honored, be protected with accountability for those who senselessly uh, took her life.
Said Arikat: This is a journalist, she’s a, a Palestinian American journalist, you know, she is very credible. Very prominent. She’s reported from Washington. She came with us to the briefing room and we sat next. I mean, all these things. If someone like this is just totally dismissed out of hand because of their Palestinianness, then one would never expect that they actually would pursue, another Palestinian journalist, you know, less than a month later, another female Palestinian journalist was shot and killed. Nobody talked about that.
Halla Mohieddeen: Said’s talking about Ghufran Warasneh, who was headed to work when she was killed by Israeli forces. Witnesses told Al Jazeera that she was in the first week of her new job.
Said Arikat: My example really was used to say that this is someone, one of us in this room, any one of us in this room could be targeted like Shireen was. And that was the point that I wanted to make.
Halla Mohieddeen: Yeah, no, I understand that because for me, I didn’t know her personally. And when I heard the news about Shireen, I was really shocked, And the thing that upset me, I think the most was the, the reaction or rather the lack of reaction, cause I was thinking that could be any of us.
Said Arikat: Yes, absolutely. and look at, you know, what, certainly the US raises the issue when a journalist is targeted in a place like Afghanistan or Ukraine or other places. But not in Palestine. I mean, these people, they conduct their job, you know. The young woman that was shot in Hebron, she was just going to her job at a radio station. She did not have the prominence that Shireen did. It was not in an area where an engagement was taking place and so on, but that’s, that’s the way it is. I mean, There’s some upward of 62 Palestinian journalists that have been killed since 1967. I mean, the number is staggering.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now you’ve had to ask the State Departments, for accountability, when it comes to your own family, I’m, I’m referring to your cousin, Ahmed Erekat. The Israeli forces killed him at a checkpoint in, in June of 2020. How does that impact you?
Said Arikat: It does impact me a great deal. A young cousin of mine, you know, from my family, I mean, I, I talked to his mom or his parents or his, his siblings and so on. And they think that I could probably raise the issue and have an impact and get an answer right away. But in fact, it’s very frustrating. It never gets anywhere.
Halla Mohieddeen: Here’s Said, bringing up his cousin at a press briefing back in 2021.
Said Arikat: Last June, for instance, you know, a young cousin of mine, was shot dead in cold blood. Ahmed Erekat on June 22nd, his body is still there. These Israelis have not returned it back this to, to his family, just to torment them.
Halla Mohieddeen: It’s part of a larger question about the Biden administration’s approach to Palestinian rights. And here’s how Ned Price responds.
Ned Price: Um, we as an administration, uh, do indeed look forward to deepening our engagement, uh, with the Palestinian people, uh, and the Palestinian leadership, um…..
Halla Mohieddeen: You’re a Palestinian American putting these questions to the State Department and getting the same stonewalled answers time and time again. I mean, it must be soul destroying, going into the office every day.
Said Arikat: It is, it really is. And, you know, and sometimes I’m just too old for this, you know, but, uh, in fact it is, you know, it’s a, it’s a worthy cause for one thing, it’s an issue that must be raised. And I feel I have an obligation to raise it. But you are right. It is very frustrating, very frustrating.
Halla Mohieddeen: For Lina, one of her greatest hopes is to put an end to the frustration that families like hers and Said’s are taking on.
Lina Abu Akleh: We just don’t want any other family to have to deal with what ours has, which is why there needs to be accountability. There needs to be justice. And sometimes I feel like I’m speaking into a, into like an empty room and nobody’s listening but I’m not discouraged. I will continue fighting because again, this is what Shireen would’ve done. Continuing to speak truth to power and just continuing to amplify the voices of the Palestinians. And that’s what Shireen used to always do. And if that means honoring her and her exceptional legacy, then I will continue doing that until justice prevails, no matter how long that will take us.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Negin Owliaei and Amy Walters with Ruby Zaman, Chloe K. Li, Alexandra Locke, and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. And Ney Alvarez is our Head of Audio.
We also want to send a special thanks out to Rania Zabana who we couldn’t have done this series without. She’s still back on the streets of the occupied West Bank doing her job as a journalist, every day. We’ll be back.
Host: Halla Mohieddeen
This episode was produced by Negin Owliaei and Amy Walters with Ruby Zaman, Chloe K Li, and Alexandra Locke. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Our engagement producers are Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad. Ney Alvarez is our head of audio.