The United States Must Stand Up for One of Its Own

If the Biden administration refuses to investigate the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, those who target American journalists will have impunity.

Image of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh
Getty; The Atlantic

Updated at 12:52 p.m. ET on June 7, 2022.

When the Palestinian American journalist and longtime Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh was killed on May 11 while reporting on an Israeli military raid in the city of Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, competing narratives quickly began to take shape. Al Jazeera and the Palestinian Authority laid the blame squarely on Israeli soldiers who, according to onlookers, fired a series of rounds at a group of journalists, striking Abu Akleh through the gap between her helmet and her protective vest marked press.

Israeli leaders pointed the finger first at a Palestinian gunman (a claim that was soon debunked by an Israeli human-rights group) and then at no one, declaring that the fatal shot could have come from either side. A recent review of the available evidence by CNN—including video, photography, eyewitnesses, and geo-data—suggested Abu Akleh was “shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.”

The Israeli government dismissed the claim of intentional targeting, but has ruled out a criminal inquiry, which it has no incentive to undertake. For its part, the Palestinian Authority lacks the resources and credibility for a full investigation of its own. (The PA did announce a summary of its autopsy findings, including an analysis of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, but it has refused to share details with the Israelis, citing a lack of trust; Israel has responded that without examining the bullet, it cannot determine who fired the shot.)

Violence against journalists is not uncommon in Israel and Palestine. At least 18 journalists have been killed by suspected military fire since 1992, according to the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists, though the Palestinian Ministry of Information puts the figure at 45 since 2000 and the Palestinian Journalists’ Union cites 55 over the same period. Already this month, another Palestinian journalist was allegedly hit and killed by Israeli military fire as she went to work in Hebron. Many more have been tear-gassed and injured by rubber bullets and stun grenades. Last year, a building housing the offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera in Gaza was destroyed in an Israeli air strike. Israel claimed that the building had housed equipment used by the militant group Hamas to interfere with Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system, but no conclusive investigation followed.

Even if neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority can render the type of comprehensive, impartial inquiry into Abu Akleh’s killing that many organizations—including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders—have called for, one party does have the power to intervene. Abu Akleh was an American citizen. The United States, hardly a neutral observer, has both a responsibility and the leverage here: Israel is a close ally, to which the U.S. provides $3.8 billion in military assistance annually; Palestinians also receive hundreds of millions in U.S. aid. “Given the level of diplomatic and military support that the U.S. gives Israel, it has every right to demand that Israeli authorities do not target journalists or medical personnel or infrastructure generally,” Tareq Baconi, the president of the board of Al-Shabaka, a global online policy network, told me.

Although the Biden administration quickly condemned Abu Akleh’s killing and called for a “thorough investigation and full accountability,” it has declined to step in and launch its own inquiry. The journalist’s death has largely fallen out of headlines since her funeral, when Israeli riot police were filmed beating Palestinian mourners, including Abu Akleh’s pallbearers, causing them to nearly drop the casket.

“We are never going to get her back,” Dalia Hatuqa, a Palestinian American journalist and a close friend of Abu Akleh’s, told me from her home in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “We just want a little bit of justice, a little bit of accountability.”

Abu Akleh’s family could sue the Israeli government in U.S. civil court. This was the option pursued by the family of Marie Colvin, an American journalist for London’s Sunday Times who was killed in 2012 in a rocket attack by the Syrian government. Their claim, which was filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, was the first war-crimes-related case against Bashar al-Assad’s regime to reach the courts. Although the court-ordered $300 million in damages will be difficult to collect from the Syrian government, the judge’s clear ruling that Colvin had been deliberately targeted as a journalist was hailed by press-freedom and human-rights advocates. Abu Akleh’s case could also end up before the International Criminal Court, an option that Al Jazeera is already pursuing. But a referral does not guarantee an investigation, and the fact that neither Israel nor the U.S. is a signatory to the ICC makes enforcement in the event of a ruling unlikely.

Only a U.S. investigation could decide who shot Abu Akleh in a way that would put the matter beyond dispute. And if the shooter did prove to be an Israeli sniper, only the U.S. has the influence to make Israel’s government hold those responsible to account. Nothing prevents the Biden administration from revising its position and sending an FBI team to investigate Abu Akleh’s killing, as more than 50 American lawmakers have called for. This was what the U.S. government did in 2002 in response to the kidnapping and killing of the Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. Such an investigation would require cooperation from both Israeli and Palestinian officials, but neither would be in a strong position to refuse, given the dependence each authority has on U.S. aid.

This week, two senators—Jon Ossoff, Democrat of Georgia, and Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah—wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to push the matter. “Press freedom is a core American value, and we cannot accept impunity when journalists are killed in the line of duty,” the senators wrote. “We insist that the Administration ensure a full and transparent investigation is completed and that justice is served for Ms. Akleh’s death.”

As deep a commitment as the U.S. has to Israel’s security, it has an even greater obligation to the safety and security of its own citizens. The State Department said as much earlier this year, when it called for “a thorough criminal investigation” into the death of 78-year-old Palestinian American Omar Assad after he was detained, bound, and gagged by Israeli soldiers. The statement asserted that the U.S. government “has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad.” In that case, the Israeli military responded by demoting two officers and censuring their commander.

The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, as she went about her work as a journalist, appears no less criminal. The U.S. has shown that it has the means to enforce the “full accountability” it calls for; the question is whether it has the motivation to use them. “The reason the Israelis act with impunity,” Matt Duss, Senator Bernie Sanders’s foreign-policy adviser, told me, “is because the United States has taught them that they can.”

This is a particularly grim conclusion for Palestinian American journalists like me, who feel they can’t trust their own government to protect them. “I’ve never once been in the field,” Hatuqa told me, “and thought, Oh, yeah, my passport will be able to do anything for me.” And that, she said, is especially true when she returns from abroad to the occupied West Bank via Jordan, “because ultimately when I cross Allenby Bridge, I’m Palestinian first and foremost.”

The Biden administration still has the opportunity to determine definitively who killed Shireen Abu Akleh and turn her case into a deterrent for those who might otherwise have little compunction about murdering members of the press. Unless the U.S. is willing to act on its words about accountability and see that justice is served, it not only will have failed one of its own, but will also be sending out a dangerous message to the world that the lives of journalists, even American journalists, are expendable.

Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that the Al-Shabaka think tank is based in Washington, D.C. In fact, it is a global online network.