Pressure is mounting on US President Joe Biden in the absence of an Israeli criminal investigation into the killing of prominent Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
The Committee to Protect Journalists – a New York-based press freedoms watchdog – is calling on Biden to “lead a thorough, independent and transparent investigation” into Abu Akleh’s death.
Investigations undertaken by Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups, the Palestinian Authority, CNN, The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the UN human rights office all point to Israeli responsibility for Abu Akleh’s death.
Abu Akleh, who held US citizenship, was shot on 11 May while covering an Israeli raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin last month. She was wearing a helmet and a protective vest marked “PRESS” when she was shot and killed instantly.
Ali Samoudi, a producer, was shot in the shoulder and survived. Witnesses and survivors of the shooting said that the journalists came under Israeli fire and there were no armed Palestinians present or exchange of fire at the time – contrary to Israel’s claims.
“While your administration has called for an investigation, more than one month after Abu Akleh’s killing, only journalists have carried out serious probes of the incident,” the Committee to Protect Journalists stated.
The watchdog added that “Israel’s attacks on journalists and media facilities is a trend that [the Committee to Protect Journalists] has documented over decades,” with nearly 20 journalists killed while carrying out their work in the West Bank and Gaza since 1992.
The group noted that “exactly one year prior to Abu Akleh’s killing … Israeli warplanes began a bombing campaign targeting at least four buildings in Gaza housing the offices of 18 international and local media outlets.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it has not yet received a response from Israeli authorities to a letter asking them to “make public any evidence” that – as Israel claimed – Hamas was using “those buildings for military purposes.”
The watchdog noted that Israel has suggested that Abu Akleh’s killing was justified, with military spokesperson Ran Kochav proclaiming that the targeted journalists were “armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so.”
The reluctance of Tel Aviv’s allies, including the US, “to seek accountability for these violations” has emboldened Israel’s attacks, the Committee to Protect Journalists added.
Al Jazeera, which obtained an image of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, said that she was struck by a US-designed and manufactured 5.56mm caliber armor-piercing bullet used in an M4 rifle.
Israel has declined to launch a criminal investigation into the soldiers involved in Abu Akleh’s death, with the military advocate general stating that “the incident had been a ‘combat event’ in which there was no suspicion of a criminal offense,” the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported.
Israel has used the same baseless interpretation of international law to justify the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters in Gaza during the Great March of Return protests between March 2018 and December 2019.
Israel argued that the mass protests were orchestrated by Hamas, the political party and resistance group that oversees Gaza’s internal affairs.
Israeli military directives require an immediate criminal investigation into the death of a Palestinian outside combat activity.
More than 215 Palestinians were killed during the Great March of Return protests. Only one Israeli soldier had been indicted over the use of live fire as of late 2020.
Israel’s killing and maiming of Gaza protesters is a main focus of the International Criminal Court’s investigation in Palestine that was opened in March last year.
Calls for ICC probe
The Palestinian Authority and Al Jazeera have separately requested that the tribunal in The Hague investigate Abu Akleh’s killing, as has a filing to the ICC from the International Federation of Journalists, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians.
The Biden administration says that it does not support an ICC investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh and has repeatedly deferred to the Israel military’s self-investigation protocol.
Israel’s self-investigations into violations of Palestinians’ rights – long dismissed by human rights groups as a whitewashing mechanism to avoid international scrutiny – will likely become a point of contention for the ICC’s investigation in Palestine, should it move forward.
The Philippines attempted to defer an ICC investigation on the basis that its authorities were investigating or had completed investigations into alleged murders committed in the context of that country’s so-called “war on drugs.”
Under the principle of complementarity, the ICC privileges a country’s internal investigations where they exist.
Karim Khan, the ICC chief prosecutor, rejected the Philippines’ request, stating last week that the government’s procedures “do not seek to establish criminal responsibility, and therefore cannot warrant deferral of the ICC’s criminal investigation.”
Khan added that “the investigation should resume as quickly as possible.”
In addition to shielding soldiers from charge or trial for Abu Akleh’s death, Israeli authorities have said that no police officers will be punished for attacking the pallbearers carrying the slain journalist’s coffin, nearly causing them to drop it, during her funeral in Jerusalem.
“Put them first”
US ambassador Tom Nides said on Tuesday that he had been “working around the clock” to help Tel Aviv meet all requirements to join the State Department’s visa waiver program before the Israeli government votes to dissolve later this week.
“Don’t lose momentum now. This will help Israeli citizens travel to the US – put them first!” he added.
Progressive US lawmakers have urged the Biden administration to keep Israel out of the visa waiver program due to the discrimination faced by Palestinian Americans seeking to visit Israel and the West Bank.
Biden will be traveling to the Middle East next month, first visiting Israel and the West Bank.
From there, Biden will make his way to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet Muhammad Bin Salman, the crown prince, who – according to the CIA – approved the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.