The US president’s visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank last week paved the way for an escalated crackdown on Palestinian human rights advocates and journalists in the Middle East.
During his perfunctory visit to the occupied West Bank on Friday, Joe Biden said that the US “will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting” for the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
He did not elaborate on what such an accounting would look like or what form Washington’s insistence might take.
The president’s vague pledge was belied by his much more specific commitment to shield Israel from accountability. That promise was made in the “Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration” that he issued with Yair Lapid, Israel’s prime minister, a day earlier.
“Integral” to that pledge is Washington’s “commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”
The US also pledged to seek “additional missile defense assistance” for Israel during “exceptional circumstances” such as Israel’s military offensive in Gaza in May 2021.
Around a dozen people in Israel were killed as a result of rocket fire from Gaza during those 11 days.
Palestinians lack an advanced defense system like that used by Israel to intercept rockets fired from Gaza. Fourteen Palestinian families lost three or more members in a single attack during that offensive as Israel targeted residential buildings.
UN independent human rights experts have stated that “owing to the vast asymmetry of power, the victims of this conflict are disproportionately Palestinians in Gaza.”
Asymmetry of power
Biden pledged to perpetuate this asymmetry of power by stating that he would continue to help Israel stamp out any and all Palestinian resistance – armed or otherwise – to Israeli occupation, colonization and apartheid.
Washington affirmed that it would work with Tel Aviv to “combat all efforts to boycott or de-legitimize Israel, to deny its right to self-defense, or to unfairly single it out in any forum, including at the United Nations or the International Criminal Court.”
That promise directly contradicts Biden’s purported insistence for accountability for Shireen Abu Akleh.
Abu Akleh, a US citizen and veteran Al Jazeera correspondent, was fatally shot while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin during May.
On 4 July, a major holiday in the US, the State Department issued a statement acknowledging that Abu Akleh was most likely killed by Israeli fire.
The statement, attributed to spokesperson Ned Price, added without any elaboration that US officials “found no reason to believe that this was intentional.”
The UN human rights office also concluded that Abu Akleh and her colleagues, who were wearing protective vests and helmets marking them as press, came under fire from the direction of Israeli forces.
But in contrast to the State Department, the human rights office noted that “several single, seemingly well-aimed bullets were fired towards them,” suggesting that the shooting was deliberate.
The State Department even appeared to justify the Israeli military’s actions, saying that Abu Akleh was killed as a “result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad … which followed a series of terrorist attacks on Israel.”
While the Biden administration has deferred to Israel, dozens of members of Congress and most senators belonging to the Democratic Party have called for a US investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing.
The Palestinian Authority and Al Jazeera have reportedly made separate filings to the International Criminal Court asking the tribunal to investigate the journalist’s shooting death as part of the Palestine war crimes probe that it launched last year.
While Biden lifted sanctions on International Criminal Court officials imposed by the Trump administration, his State Department responded to the announcement of the Palestine investigation by saying that it “firmly opposes and is deeply disappointed by this decision.”
The International Federation of Journalists has also referred Abu Akleh’s killing to the ICC, calling it a “deliberate and systematic targeting of a journalist.”
Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, has said that the Biden administration does not believe that the ICC is “an appropriate venue” for such an investigation. Yet during the same press briefing, he said the White House welcomed The Hague’s investigation of war crimes in Ukraine.
The joint declaration signed by Biden and Lapid implies that efforts to hold Israel accountable in international fora such as the UN and the ICC “unfairly single it out.”
The declaration rejects the Palestinian-led movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions and in the next sentence says the US and Israel will “fight every scourge and source of anti-Semitism,” implying a link between the two where there is none.
The declaration also pledges “to respond whenever legitimate criticism crosses over into bigotry and hatred or attempts to undermine Israel’s rightful and legitimate place among the family of nations.”
Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, said that the declaration is “the latest continuation of Israel’s protracted smear campaign targeting Palestinian civil society organizations, supported by the US.”
Rather than “repairing the world,” as Biden and Lapid claim in their joint declaration, the pact “will further entrench the Israeli apartheid regime,” according to Al-Haq.
Al-Haq is one of six Palestinian organizations declared a “terrorist group” by Israel last year on the basis of “secret evidence.”
The foreign ministries of several European governments that fund those organizations issued a rare joint statement ahead of Biden’s visit to Israel and the West Bank rejecting the terror designations and affirming their support of the targeted groups.
Nearly two dozen US lawmakers wrote to Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, this week to express their “serious concern” for the six Palestinian groups.
“A reported lack of evidence to support this decision raises concerns that it may be a deeply repressive measure, designed to criminalize and silence prominent and essential Palestinian human rights organizations,” the letter from the members of congress, led by Ayanna Pressley, states.The lawmakers urge Blinken to “publicly reject this decision” and “call on the Israeli government to reverse course.”
More than 140 organizations signed on in support of the letter, including the six Palestinian organizations, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam America, the Israel lobby group J Street and the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Evidently, Biden did not raise Israel’s terror designations against the Palestinian groups – a widely condemned move – during his visit.
Three of those groups – Addameer, Al-Haq, and Defense for Children International-Palestine – are closely engaged with the International Criminal Court’s investigation of war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza. They are likely being targeted because of that work, and not despite it.
Biden’s reaffirmation that the US will help Israel undermine the ICC investigation can only be seen as a tacit endorsement of the criminalization of the Palestinian groups representing victims at the court.
Reassured that the US will “combat” efforts to burst Israeli impunity at the UN and ICC, Tel Aviv is surely feeling emboldened to escalate its repression.The Israeli defense ministry reportedly sent a letter to three lawyers representing some of the six Palestinian organizations stating that they “may be in violation of Israel’s terror laws for collecting fees from the groups.”
Reporters like Shireen Abu Akleh are also more vulnerable after Biden’s Middle East tour, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“The US effectively shrugged its shoulders over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, did not push for the release of journalists jailed in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and did not commit to an FBI-led investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh,” Sherif Mansour, a program coordinator with the press safety watchdog, stated.
“Journalists in the region – and the world – are sadly more vulnerable after this trip,” Mansour added.