At his Summit for Democracy in March, President Joe Biden said he was “proud to stand with all of you to defend those fundamental values we all share” including “freedom of the press” around the world. Those were welcome words then. Now is the time for action.
It has been more than a year since the Israeli army, by its own admission, killed Palestinian American Shireen Abu Akleh, one of the most famous TV journalists in the Arab world. Yet, no one has been held accountable.
It has been more than six months since the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an inquiry into the May 11, 2022, shooting, but key witnesses have not been interviewed.
It has been more than two months since Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel, the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, sent the State Department his report on the killing, but it’s still classified.
Such foot-dragging denies justice to the families and colleagues of Abu Akleh and the 19 other journalists and media workers who have been killed by Israeli military fire over the past 22 years. It also chills reporting from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and removes incentives for the Israeli army to reform its rules of engagement to mitigate further media deaths.
A `Black Box’
As far as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is concerned, all 20 of these media killings cases are closed. “Deadly Pattern,” a report that I helped prepare for the Committee to Protect Journalists, described the investigative process into these killings as a black box that seemed essentially designed to exonerate the military.
Probes were more likely to be undertaken if the journalist was a foreigner or worked for a foreign news outlet. In five cases, no inquiry was announced. Of the 20 journalists and media support workers killed, 13, including Abu Akleh, were wearing protective gear clearly marked “PRESS” or traveled in vehicles with TV and press insignia. Witness testimony and independent reports were discounted in 13 cases by Israeli authorities – oftentimes ignoring or failing to formally consider independent investigations or testimony from other journalists on the scene, such as in the shooting deaths of Italian photojournalist Raffaele Ciriello in 2002 and Associated Press TV reporter Nazih Darwazeh in 2003. Eighteen of the dead were Palestinian, one was British and one Italian.
After a journalist killing, Israeli politicians and officials sometimes pushed out false narratives about the circumstances of the incident or labeled the journalist a terrorist. No Israeli soldier or official has ever been prosecuted or held accountable for any of the deaths.
The killing of Abu Akleh outside a refugee camp in the northern West Bank city of Jenin marked a watershed, in part because of her prominence and the brazen, misleading information pumped out in the immediate aftermath. Initial Israeli government accounts raised more questions than answers about how a veteran conflict reporter cautiously walking down a street with other journalists to cover an Israeli raid in the West Bank could be shot in the head by a soldier from inside an armored vehicle more than 150 meters away. IDF rules of engagement are confidential, but Abu Akleh did not meet any of the three criteria that I understand, based on conversations with Israeli military sources, would justify the use of lethal force under those regulations: namely, that she had the ability, the means, and the intent to harm the soldiers or those around them.
Such was the skepticism that greeted the official Israeli account that independent media launched their own investigations. Inquiries by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and Bellingcat, concluded that the army had likely killed her. CNN found evidence of a targeted attack. The London-based research group Forensic Architecture and the Ramallah-based human rights organization Al-Haq said the army personnel targeted her with the intention to kill.
Five months after her death, the IDF said its own, confidential internal inquiry had found there was a “high possibility” that a soldier had “accidently” shot the journalist while firing on Palestinian gunmen.
US Action to Spur Results
If the international community and journalists do nothing, the case will end at that point. But there is a path to justice for the Abu Akleh family and it runs through Washington. Only the United States has the political, diplomatic, and military leverage with its closest Middle East ally to produce change.
The Biden administration can take three actions immediately. First, it can step up the FBI investigation into the Abu Akleh killing and have the Justice Department provide an update on where the case stands. The Israeli government has publicly refused to cooperate with the FBI probe, but Biden should not give Israel, a self-declared friend of the United States, a veto over justice for an American citizen.
Second, the administration can release the U.S. security coordinator’s classified report, as urged by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has viewed it. “I strongly believe that its public release is vital to ensuring transparency and accountability in the shooting death of American citizen and journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and to avoiding future preventable and wrongful deaths – goals we should all support,” Van Hollen said. The U.S. State Department has not offered justification for keeping the report classified.
And third, the U.S. military can use its considerable influence with the IDF to assist them in reviewing and revising the rules of engagement that have, in significant part, apparently led to the 20 media deaths and wounding of scores of journalists since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2000.
“The official rules of engagement have shifted and became much, much more murky, much less clear, much more flexible [and] opened up many shootings and injuries or killings that could retroactively be justified,” said Avner Gvaryahu, co-director of Breaking the Silence, an organization that has collected the testimonies of more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers about security force practices in the West Bank and Gaza.
Politically, changing the rules of engagement would be a heavy lift under any government, and more so now under the nationalist, right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Socially too, criticizing the country’s conscript army is virtually a family taboo.
“I think that most Israelis can’t stomach soldiers being prosecuted, and the political energy is totally against that,” Gvaryahu acknowledges.
Nevertheless, the U.S. military can try to use its influence with the IDF. U.S. forces, after all, have changed their own rules of engagement in the past – for example, in light of civilian and journalist deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Washington has an opportunity to act. Failure to do so will perpetuate the cycle of impunity and expose more Palestinian and foreign journalists to death or injury simply for attempting to report on a story of global interest.