By Mitchell Plitnick / Mondoweiss
In a surprising but welcome development, the United States’ Department of Justice has begun an investigation into Israel’s killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The announcement came six months after Abu Akleh was killed while covering an Israeli raid on the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin.
As Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) tweeted, “This is an overdue but necessary and important step in the pursuit of justice and accountability in the shooting death of American citizen and journalist.” Van Hollen has been leading the call in the Senate for this investigation. It’s a rare instance of a mainstream Democrat applying consistent and ongoing pressure on the White House to take an action to which Israel objects.
And Israel has made its objections quite clear. The investigation was announced to the media by Israel, not the United States. And almost immediately, outgoing Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz railed against Israel’s financial and military patron.
Reactions from Israel and the White House
“The decision taken by the US Justice Department to conduct an investigation into the tragic passing of Shireen Abu Akleh, is a mistake,” Gantz tweeted. In the Hebrew version, he called it a “grave mistake.” He continued, “The IDF has conducted a professional, independent investigation, which was presented to American officials with whom the details were shared. I have delivered a message to US representatives that we stand by the IDF’s soldiers, that we will not cooperate with an external investigation, and will not enable intervention to internal investigations.”
Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid echoed Gantz’s words, saying that “Israeli soldiers won’t be investigated by the FBI, nor by any other foreign authority or country, as friendly as they may be.” But both the announcement and the Israeli response raise significant questions.
The White House and State Department both sought to distance themselves from the Justice Department’s investigation, saying that the decision was an independent one made by DoJ. Both the Israelis and Americans told Axios that the decision to investigate was made on November 1, but that Israel was notified three days later, after the Israeli elections. It seems unlikely that Justice would hold on to that information for three days and not at least give the White House some warning of it.
What made the U.S. decide to launch this investigation now?
Nearly two decades ago, when an Israeli in a U.S.-made armored bulldozer ran over activist Rachel Corrie, Rep. Brian Baird introduced a bill that called on the FBI to conduct a full and impartial investigation into her death. The bill died a quick and quiet death in the House. Nearly a decade later, Barack Obama’s Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told Rachel’s parents that Israel’s investigation was not “as thorough, credible, and transparent as it should have been,” but there was no suggestion of a U.S. investigation.
What changed this time? A few factors differentiate Abu Akleh from Corrie, none of them very fair. Abu Akleh was a major figure in global journalism while Corrie was a college student and activist. As such, Al Jazeera and groups devoted to free press and protecting journalists worked hard to keep the issue of Abu Akleh’s murder alive and to directly press U.S. officials. Rachel Corrie was part of the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestine solidarity group that was a favorite target for demonization by supporters of Israel. That made her a more controversial figure for people in Washington than Shireen Abu Akleh who had an unassailable journalistic record.
In Abu Akleh’s case, major political figures took up her cause, including Senator Van Hollen. They issued repeated calls for an investigation. In June, Van Hollen took the lead on a letter from 24 senators calling for full U.S. involvement in an investigation. In September, he explicitly questioned the veracity of Israel’s conclusion about Abu Akleh’s death and called for an independent U.S. investigation. Reps. Andre Carson (D-IN), Lou Correa (D-CA), and Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) sent a letter also signed by 54 other House Democrats, nearly one-fourth of the Democratic caucus, calling for an independent FBI investigation.
That kind of pressure from within the president’s own party is difficult to ignore. It is standard for the FBI to investigate the death of any American citizen abroad, as even staunch AIPAC supporter Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was forced to admit, although he also stated that he believed Israel had credibly investigated the incident.
But while that pressure was significant, it would not have existed without the relentless work of Shireen Abu Akleh’s family and the tireless activism from the Palestine advocacy community. That work came together with a political moment where Israel is less popular than ever among Democratic voters to open the door for this unprecedented move by the DoJ.
Implications of Israel’s response
The hostile response from Israel demonstrates a significant amount of frustration on their part over the fact that Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder has not gone away as other incidents of Israeli violence, including killings, against U.S. citizens have in the past. Israel’s claims about Abu Akleh’s death have gone from accusing Palestinians of the killing and refusing any sort of investigation to being forced to admit—after numerous investigations by human rights groups and media sources demonstrated they were lying—that their own soldier had fired the shot that killed her. They launched a grudging sham of a non-criminal investigation, the details of which have remained opaque, but somehow managed to conclude that the incident was accidental. The U.S. accepted that view uncritically, also without offering any evidence on which to base that conclusion.
Back in September, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated that “No one knows the IDF’s processes and procedures better than the IDF, and so it is not on us or any other country or entity to say precisely what the IDF or any military or security organization around the world should do.” He said that while U.S. diplomats had stressed the importance of “accountability,” they had not been “prescriptive.” The fact that even the State Department has continued to press for accountability implies that Israel’s various admissions have not satisfied them, yet they were not making specific demands around what accountability would look like. In other words, State knew, and even hinted publicly, that Israel was covering up the details of Abu Akleh’s death but was refusing to take any serious steps about it.
Based on the initial responses, it doesn’t appear that the White House and State are very comfortable with the DoJ investigation. Neither the White House nor State have indicated that they would press Israel to cooperate with the FBI. Indeed, it seems unlikely that they would be pleased with the prospect of adding this bit of friction to the already prickly situation of Kahanists playing prominent roles in the incoming Israeli government.
Yet Israel’s hysterical refusal to cooperate means that any FBI report is unlikely to be conclusive, and that Israel has a lot to hide.
Israel treats this as an internal matter. Gantz stated that “we will not allow interference in Israel’s internal affairs.” But this is not an internal matter. Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in Jenin, which Israel occupies but does not, even by its own, contra-legal definitions, claim as its sovereign territory. The assertion, therefore, that this killing of an American citizen is an internal matter holds no more weight than would a Russian claim that killing a journalist in areas of Eastern Ukraine that it occupies is an internal Russian matter.
The difference is that if this was Russia, the White House and State would fully back an FBI, or any other agency’s, investigation.
The future of this investigation
Israeli leaders believe this investigation will be “largely symbolic,” and if they won’t cooperate with it, they’re probably right. The facts of Abu Akleh’s murder have already been clearly established. Even Israel has admitted one of its soldiers killed her. The only aspect that remains unproven is whether the killing was intentional.
Without interviewing the soldier who shot Shireen Abu Akleh and her or his fellows, it is impossible to establish the intentionality of the killing. Israel’s steadfast refusal to cooperate certainly casts a skeptical light on the soldier’s intentions, but that isn’t proof, and it is far from accountability.
Indeed, as Prof. Stephen Zunes pointed out, “The Israeli government has declared that it will not cooperate with an FBI investigation in the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aklah by Israeli occupation forces earlier this year. Biden still insists unconditional taxpayer-funded military aid will continue.”
The attitude in the White House and State Department seems to be that they can’t legitimately oppose the FBI investigation, but it’s not their preferred course of action and they’ll do little to aid it. Without that support, it will be virtually impossible for the FBI to identify the soldier responsible and even more difficult to determine if anyone higher up the chain of command bore any responsibility for Abu Akleh’s murder.
But it’s Zunes’ point that really bears on what accountability can realistically be expected. Abu Akleh’s family has indicated that they are pleased with this first step but that they expect more. No doubt, activists who have been calling for accountability will also maintain their pressure.
This is important, because while it is unlikely that accountability for those directly involved in Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder will be attained, there can be consequences for Israel’s brazen refusal to allow its patron—without whom, lest we forget, Israel would not be able to act with the impunity it does—the answers it seeks regarding the killing of one of its citizens.
Reminding the media, Congress, the President, and our fellow citizens that despite the U.S.’ ongoing and unquestioning largesse, Israel feels it can kill an American citizen without explanation, justification, or sincere investigation can help reignite the discussion about Israel being the sole exception in the world to U.S. laws requiring that our military aid and arms sales be monitored by reports to Congress. We can ask why our ally feels it can not only use our support to brutalize Palestinians in the West Bank and to starve the people of Gaza, but also why they feel they can kill our citizens without fear of consequence.