Program Director of the New Internationalism Project
Institute for Policy Studies
Washington Bureau Chief
Multimedia Journalist Specializing in Israeli/Palestinian Affairs
Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator
Committee to Protect Journalists
Arab Center Washington DC
About the Webinar
On June 30, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) held a virtual seminar titled “Unravelling the Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh: The Issue of Accountability.” Panelists were Phyllis Bennis, Program Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies; Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera; Dalia Hatuqa, multimedia journalist specializing in Israeli-Palestinian affairs; and Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists. ACW Executive Director, Khalil E. Jahshan, hosted the event.
Abderrahim Foukara stated that it was unbelievable to hear of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, who over more than two decades was a regular media fixture for millions of people in the Arab world. He said that despite attempts to make people forget about her death, her case continues to resonate in the United States and the Biden Administration will therefore have to deal with it. He stated that while we are fortunate enough to have institutions and respect for the rule of law in the US, we are also confronted by the reality of a deep, entangled relationship with Israel that will limit the extent to which the administration insists on an independent investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing. Another factor is the current political atmosphere in the US, where a good part of the Left is supportive of the Palestinians and will advocate for accountability. But regardless, Foukara said, there is a lot of resistance in both the administration and in Congress against any real accountability. The Biden administration also insists that Israel is capable of conducting a good investigation, but Al Jazeera is not at all convinced, and neither are Palestinians and many other members of the international community.
Foukara said that even though a good number of legislators in Washington wrote the administration and urged it to conduct an independent investigation, they seemed to insinuate that the Palestinian Authority is somehow responsible for hindering an inquiry by refusing to turn over to Israel the bullet that killed Abu Akleh. He argued that the legislators’ statement about the issue “turned the situation upside-down; on the one hand calling for an independent investigation, but between the lines you could read that they are almost making it about the Palestinian Authority rather than about the Israelis.” Foukara added that there are reasons to believe that accountability for Abu Akleh’s killing is indeed possible, but that there are plenty of factors that stand in the way. Stating Al Jazeera’s position, he said that the organization does not think that Israel can be trusted to conduct “an independent, impartial, and real investigation.”
Phyllis Bennis began her presentation by saying that Israel is capable of conducting an investigation, but that it lacks the political will to do so. She said that Israel’s actions fall on the shoulders of the United States, which supports it with $3.8 billion in military assistance each year, making up 20 percent of Israel’s total military budget. This military aid makes the United States just as responsible for Israeli violations of international law—a term that Washington purposefully avoids, substituting the phrase a “rules-based order.” But as Bennis pointed out, this allows the US to avoid international laws and to instead play by “other rules that are created and imposed by the United States.” She said that “the United States does have a history of respecting international law, but only in so far as it applies to other governments, to other countries, to others.” This is why, she asserted, there will not be an adequate investigation by either Israel or the United States. She said that the United States should apply its own laws in addressing Israel’s actions, including the Arms Export Control Act, which stipulates that US military assistance can only be used for self-defense, and the Leahy Act, which prohibits sending military aid to violators of human rights.
Bennis discounted the possibility that the US will hold Israel accountable for the killing of Abu Akleh, citing the case of another American citizen, Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli soldier driving a bulldozer in Gaza, and to whose death the United States did nothing in response. As another example of the United States’ disregard for international law, Bennis brought up Yemen’s 1990 vote opposing the intervention in Iraq, which immediately led to the suspension of $70 million of US aid to the country. Bennis also cited the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Biden is planning to meet in July. Meanwhile, Bennis said that both the US and Israel are guilty of violations that could be tried in the International Criminal Court, but both countries refuse to accept its jurisdiction. She added that while Biden has decried Trump’s policies, he refuses to rescind his predecessor’s decisions recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and condoning the annexation of the Golan Heights. She concluded by asserting that Israel will never conduct a meaningful investigation and that the Biden Administration will not force Israel’s hand because it does not have the political will to do so.
Sherif Mansour highlighted the significance of Abu Akleh’s murder for concerns about the safety of all other journalists who report on Palestine. He emphasized that Israeli rules of engagement represent a significant threat to press safety, which is borne out by the fact that 18 other journalists covering Palestine have been killed in recent years, including one who was murdered in their own home. Mansour stated that it is Israel’s “trigger-happy policies that allow these attacks to continue,” and that the Israeli Army has “a pattern of not even making any reasonable effort to avoid journalist or civilian casualties.” Although the UN has made some effort to investigate this pattern and groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists continue to advocate for accountability and justice, Mansour said that Abu Akleh’s killing remains emblematic of how Israel continues to act with impunity in its violent attacks on journalists.
Mansour went on to address President Biden’s upcoming travel to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which he said was very worrying for those concerned with the safety of journalists. The leaders of these countries, Mansour stated, are among the world’s top perpetrators of “assaults on journalists, transnational assaults, surveillance assaults, and other forms of intimidation.” He further stated that Biden’s visit “sends exactly the wrong message to Israel, to the Middle East region, and to the world.” Biden’s visit, he argued, is “a case of normalizing assaults against journalists.” Furthermore, Mansour pointed out the hypocrisy of Biden’s visit to curry favor with leaders who have modeled themselves on authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin, the very leader whose influence Biden claims he is heading to the Middle East to combat. Returning to Abu Akleh’s murder, Mansour emphasized the importance of an independent investigation, and urged the US to open an FBI investigation into her death. He concluded by saying, “There is a lot more… that can be done to ensure accountability and transparency, including releasing information about what happened before, during, and after Shireen was killed.”
Dalia Hatuqa opened by placing her own emphasis on the hypocrisy of the Biden Administration, which she said has “condemned Shireen’s killing and called for a thorough investigation and full accountability, but… has declined to step in and launch its own inquiry.” Hatuqa called this “unfathomable” given that the administration had previously conducted investigations into the deaths of American journalists Daniel Pearl and Marie Colvin. And while Hatuqa acknowledged that as American citizens, Abu Akleh’s family could potentially sue the Israeli government in a US Civil Court, she said that in her opinion, “Unfortunately, there is not going to be justice for Shireen under the prevailing circumstances.” These circumstances, she argued, include both US support and European acquiescence, which together allow Israel to “go on killing without consequence.” Hatuqa was also dismissive of official statements of condemnation, arguing that “statements by western leaders and officials are designed to substitute for rather than ensure a meaningful response.”
Hatqua then addressed the implications of Abu Akleh’s murder for other journalists who cover Israel and Palestine. She emphasized how careful, cautious, and safety conscious Abu Akleh was known to be, and how her death had therefore caused a great deal of “shock and disbelief” among her fellow journalists, who are certain that this was a “targeted killing.” According to Hatuqa, “That is what is so cruel, unjust, and frightening about it, for her, for her family. But for us as journalists covering this patch of land, the killing of Shireen was criminal.” She highlighted the impact of Israeli impunity on Palestinian American journalists who feel unprotected, even by their own government. “But unless the US is willing to act on its own words about accountability and see that justice is served,” Hatqua stated, “it not only will have failed one of its own, but it will be sending a message out to the world that the lives of journalists, even American journalists, are expendable.” Hatuqa also spoke about Abu Akleh’s legacy, both as a prominent journalist and as a kind, brave, and joyful human being who loved life. Abu Akleh was a household name across the Arab world and a role model, especially for young women who wished to follow in the footsteps of the first female correspondent in the region. “For most Arabs,” Hatuqa said, “Palestine is a place that they revere but that they cannot reach. So she brought Palestine to them, right to their homes.” And although to many Abu Akleh was “a trailblazer, a symbol, and a martyr,” Hatuqa stated that, “The one title she earned throughout her life and that she would have wanted to be known for is a journalist.”