We owe it to Abu Akleh to discover the truth about her death

We owe it to Abu Akleh to discover the truth about her death

We owe it to Abu Akleh to discover the truth about her death
A mural of slain of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Gaza City, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo)
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The tragic killing of Shireen Abu Akleh — while fulfilling her journalistic duty with her usual fearless dedication and professionalism by reporting on yet another incursion by Israeli security forces into the city of Jenin back in May — must have been avoidable and should have been avoided. She was, after all, wearing a helmet and a blue protective vest marked “Press,” ostensibly leaving no room for any doubt about what she was doing there.

But it happened and what has followed is almost as ugly and infuriating as the killing itself, starting with Israel’s reluctance to hold an independent investigation and the incomprehensible, despicable behavior of Israeli security forces during her funeral. A personal — and to an extent a national — tragedy has turned into a damage limitation exercise by Israel in its efforts to deflect responsibility and accountability.

Israel’s delaying tactics, making it difficult for international bodies to investigate what exactly happened on that fateful morning, have been carried out in the hope that the world will eventually lose interest in the killing of Abu Akleh; that it would be drowned out by the busy news cycle and then forgotten, or at least pushed to the fringes of the news and the public debate. However, exactly the opposite has happened, and rightly so.

This time, the victim was a highly respected and well-known journalist and, by coincidence also a US citizen, which made her shooting difficult for Washington to ignore, as it does when other less-exalted Palestinians are killed with complete impunity. Moreover, Abu Akleh’s death has highlighted the more general point that the Israel Defense Forces’ rules for using weapons are too lax and there are too many cases in which soldiers have been either too trigger-happy or ill-disciplined to follow even insufficient rules when it comes to opening fire on Palestinians.

It is not often that a US administration criticizes an Israeli one, especially in public. Nevertheless, the death of Abu Akleh, being a journalist and an American citizen, has put the Biden administration under greater scrutiny regarding its willingness to insist on a credible investigation into what might be an unlawful killing. When pressed by journalists, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel this month clarified that not only do “we continue to underscore the importance of accountability in this case,” but that Washington will continue to press Israel to conduct a revision of “its policies and practices on rules of engagement and consider additional steps to mitigate the risk of civilian harm, protect journalists and prevent similar tragedies in the future.”

It is still unclear what measures the US might take to convince its Israeli ally to pursue such a review, especially one that would lead to the changes needed to better protect civilians where military operations are taking place, particularly in the midst of densely populated Palestinian cities, towns and villages. One cannot take much encouragement from the Israeli response to this statement, led by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who rebuffed Washington by defiantly stating that “no one will dictate open-fire regulations to us when we are fighting for our lives.”

This might, therefore, be high noon for the Biden administration if it wishes to have some positive influence on this never-ending conflict and to leverage its power. At the very least, it could be expected to try and reduce the number of killings of innocent Palestinians and, when they do still happen, to ensure that they are not carried out with impunity.

Israel maintains that its open-fire policy follows the provisions of the international humanitarian law principle of distinction, which permits attacks only on those who are taking part in the hostilities and on objects that are used for military purposes. It also insists on the principle of proportionality being applied. But such provisions are too often ignored. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed over the years despite not being involved in any act of militancy or for being engaged in what can only be regarded as legitimate acts of political resistance to an illegal occupation.

It took the IDF nearly four months to half-heartedly admit there was a “high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire,” which translates as: “It was definitely an Israeli soldier who killed her, but since it was an accident no one is going to take responsibility.” Why should anyone accept this statement at face value, after months of deflection, when a number of independent investigations by media outlets and other organizations suggest otherwise?

I would not like to pretend that I know the level of culpability in the case of Abu Akleh’s killing: Was it intentional, an act of negligence or an accident? And if it was intentional, was it one soldier’s initiative or was he or she under instruction to shoot her? Alternatively, if it was a tragic mistake, what steps are being taken to prevent such killings in the future?

It was back in May that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for an “independent, credible investigation” into Abu Akleh’s death. But as Blinken was reminded recently by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a senior Democrat who was the main sponsor of the law that prohibits the US from providing equipment and training to a foreign military unit or individual suspected of committing gross human rights violations, such an investigation has yet to take place.

In a statement this month, Leahy asked: “What steps has the State Department taken to determine whether the Leahy Law applies in this case?” The onus is on the current US administration to answer this question if it is to have any chance of recouping some of its credibility as one that cares for human rights or has any semblance of an aspiration to ever become an honest peace broker between Israel and the Palestinians.

This might be high noon for the Biden administration if it wishes to have some positive influence on this never-ending conflict.

Yossi Mekelberg

As long as there is no independent and credible investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, the Palestinians and many others will be forced to conclude that it was an intentional killing — and, above all else, was a warning to journalists that they risk their lives should they dare report on how the Israeli security forces operate in their dealings with Palestinians.

Abu Akleh was a dedicated, meticulous and courageous journalist who demonstrated her integrity throughout a long and extremely successful career and was never afraid to put herself in the line of fire. She did this because she wanted us viewers sitting in our comfortable armchairs to know the truth about the extreme hardships that her people have to endure while living under occupation and blockade. Sadly, it cost this brave journalist her life and we therefore owe it to her and her family to insist that the truth about her killing be uncovered and, if there is culpability, that justice be done.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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