Washington, DC – A spokesperson for the US State Department has faced a barrage of questions about what the United States has done to get accountability for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera journalist who was fatally shot by Israeli forces last year.
At a news briefing on Wednesday, which coincided with World Press Freedom Day, Vedant Patel repeatedly told reporters that Washington is seeking accountability by asking Israel to review its military rules of engagement.
“[Reviewing] rules of engagement sounds like it’s something to deter and prevent this [from] happening again,” one visibly frustrated journalist said. “Is there an active effort of the US seeking accountability from Israel?”
Patel responded, “There is an active effort. And since Shireen’s tragic death, we have continued to press Israel to closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagements and consider additional steps to mitigate risk of civilian harm and protect journalists.”
Next week will mark the anniversary of the killing of Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American reporter who was fatally shot by Israeli forces on May 11, 2022, while covering a military raid in the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank.
Al Jazeera Media Network said that day that she was “assassinated in cold blood”.
But Washington has rejected efforts to seek accountability for the killing at the International Criminal Court (ICC), drawing condemnation from press freedom and Palestinian rights advocates who have called on US President Joe Biden’s administration to demand justice.
Israel, which rights groups accuse of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians, receives at least $3.8bn in US security assistance annually.
Adam Shapiro, director of advocacy for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based rights group, said Washington’s response to the killing of Abu Akleh has been “pathetic from the start”.
He told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the Biden administration’s approach to the case has been to “express thoughts and prayers” while trying to “make it go away”.
Although the US has not conducted its own investigation into the case, Patel said on Wednesday that the killing of Abu Akleh was “unintentional”. He did not provide any evidence to back up that assessment, which echoed Israel’s claims.
Several investigations by rights groups and media outlets, as well as witness accounts, have cast doubt on the assertion that Abu Akleh’s killing was accidental, noting that she was identifiable by her press gear when she was fatally shot.
Abu Akleh also was not in the immediate vicinity of any fighting, the reports found.
Washington called for accountability in the case early on and said the journalist’s killers “should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”.
However, after Israel acknowledged that there was “high possibility” its army fired the shot that killed Abu Akleh but ruled out a criminal investigation into what happened, US officials appeared to drop the call for prosecuting the perpetrators.
Israeli leaders also openly rejected US requests to review its military’s rules of engagement last year. “No one will dictate our rules of engagement to us,” then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said.
Israeli and US media outlets reported in November 2022 that the FBI had launched an investigation into the killing, and Israeli officials have ruled out cooperating with the purported probe. The US Justice Department has declined to confirm the investigation.
Earlier this week, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the release of a new report on the incident drafted by the United States Security Coordinator (USSC).
Last year, the USSC — which oversees and encourages security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian officials — said the Israeli military “was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh”.
It added, however, that there was “no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances”.
The statement was not a result of a full investigation, US officials said at the time, explaining that it served as a summary of Israeli and Palestinian probes. A Palestinian Authority investigation had said weeks earlier that Israeli forces deliberately fired at Abu Akleh “with the aim to kill”.
On Wednesday, Patel at the State Department said he has not seen the new USSC report, but his understanding is that it came to the “same conclusion”.
“I don’t have any additional updates or assessments to offer on this report,” he said.
World Press Freedom Day
Earlier on Wednesday, US officials paid tribute to journalists on World Press Freedom Day, taking the opportunity to renew calls for the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is imprisoned in Russia.
“Journalism is not a crime — it is fundamental to a free society,” Biden said in a statement that failed to mention Abu Akleh.
Blinken also released a statement decrying attacks on reporters and calling for the immediate release of Gershkovich, whom Washington has formally designated as wrongfully detained. The top US diplomat did not mention Abu Akleh, either.
Blinken also joined Washington Post columnist David Ignatius for an event marking World Press Freedom Day, but the killing of the Al Jazeera journalist was not raised in their 30-minute discussion.
“President Biden and Secretary Blinken omitting the Israeli military’s brutal murder of Shireen Abu Akleh during World Press Freedom Day shows a dehumanizing disregard toward Palestinians, as well as a weak commitment by this administration to freedom of the press,” Ahmad Abuznaid, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, told Al Jazeera in an email.
Shapiro, of DAWN, also described Washington’s failure to mention Abu Akleh in official statements on Wednesday as “utterly outrageous”.
“I think, for Shireen, it’s undoubtedly because it was Israel who killed her that the United States wants it to go away,” he said. “But the fact that she was also from Al Jazeera is a secondary factor that I think shouldn’t be ignored.”