By Ishaan Tharoor / The Washington Post
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden made an impassioned address on World Press Freedom Day. Journalists live in “perilous times,” he warned on May 3, pointing to at least 11 killed in Ukraine in the weeks that followed the Russian invasion. The duty of the press is to “hold the powerful to account,” Biden continued. “And for this, too often, they are killed, jailed, raped, threatened, and harassed. Women journalists, long a minority in the newsroom, are disproportionately targeted, on- and offline, in these attacks.”
Eight days after Biden made these remarks, a celebrated woman journalist joined this year’s grim and growing casualty list: Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian American correspondent for Al Jazeera, was shot dead while covering clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians near Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
Israeli authorities initially tried to blame Palestinian militants for her death, even as Al Jazeera and numerous eyewitnesses said she had been shot by Israeli soldiers.
Subsequent detailed investigations by a number of major media outlets, including The Washington Post, found that those Israeli claims were almost certainly false and that Abu Akleh was likely killed by Israeli sniper fire. In written responses to my colleagues at the time, the Israeli Defense Forces declared that “no IDF soldier deliberately fired at a journalist,” though it supplied no evidence to justify that conclusion. Nor did it respond to questions about what Israeli footage of the incident — by drones or body cameras worn by most soldiers — may show.
Those findings came out in June. Yet the Biden administration, beyond expressions of sympathy and sadness, did little to press for justice for a journalist — and a U.S. citizen, after all — allegedly killed by the Israelis and, instead, seemed to echo the Israeli line, which had shifted as more evidence emerged. On July 4, the State Department issued a short statement after finishing an analysis of the forensic and ballistic evidence, as well as separate investigations carried out by the Palestinians and Israelis. It concluded that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh likely originated from Israeli gunfire, but there was “no reason to believe this was intentional,” a conclusion that seemingly waved away Israeli culpability and infuriated Abu Akleh’s family and others seeking accountability.
Biden did not act on a request from Abu Akleh’s relatives to meet while visiting Israel and the West Bank this month. He did not mention her in public remarks when standing alongside Israeli officials. But U.S. officials still insisted that the Biden administration cared about her case.
“There will have to be efforts made in accountability and making sure that we find a way to conclude this chapter justly,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters before Biden landed in Israel. “This is someone who was a journalist, an American citizen. The president, the secretary of state, the entire team grieves for the family.”
Abu Akleh’s family is now holding the Biden administration to its word. This week, her brother, his wife and their two children came to Washington, D.C., to press her case. That started with a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday from which they came away disappointed.
“We were hoping they would tell us something we hadn’t heard before,” Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen’s niece, told me the following day. But that was not to be: “It was just the same rhetoric, repeating the same statements,” she added. Blinken apparently made no new commitments or promises and did not retract the July 4 statement that so upset the Abu Akleh family.
“Why would they reach a conclusion about intent and hurt our case, if they don’t have any clear evidence or credible sources,” said Abu Akleh. “It makes you wonde: are they trying to cover up the story, shove it under the rug, close the case?”
She believes that her aunt “was clearly targeted” by a “very precise shot,” even as she wore a visibly-marked press vest. “There’s no way that’s a mistake,” she said.
The family also met with officials from the Justice Department’s section on human rights and special prosecutions, which is separately involved in investigating the killing of a U.S. journalist by Russian forces in Ukraine.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Abu Akleh pointed to a long history of impunity for Israel when it comes to killing American citizens; from the infamous 2003 incident that saw an Israeli soldier drive a bulldozer over peace activist Rachel Corrie to earlier this year, when Israeli forces dragged Omar Assad, a 78-year-old Palestinian American, from his car at a checkpoint and left him bound and gagged in the cold at a construction site, where he died of a heart attack.
“The U.S. has a choice to make: They either support human rights, the equal treatment of its citizens, support justice, or they continue to perpetuate the impunity that Israel enjoys,” she told me.
For Palestinians, the lack of accountability for Abu Akleh’s death is a parable for the broader injustice of the prevailing status quo; one where millions of Palestinians remain subject to Israeli military occupation, second-class citizens in their own land. They view her killing as yet another example of the impunity with which Israel can operate, and the Biden administration’s response, thus far, as yet another example of the ways with which the United States has historically shielded Israel from censure and scrutiny.
“Her case represents all the stories she covered over the past 25 years,” said Abu Akleh, gesturing to her aunt’s quarter-century of coverage of politics and conflict in the occupied territories. “When you talk about her case, you’re talking about the entire cause of Palestine.”
The family received more encouragement following meetings on the Hill. A Thursday news conference on the steps of the Capitol was attended by a string of prominent Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez of New York, who urged the Biden administration to launch a proper, independent investigation of the incident.
A statement from six Democratic senators on the Appropriations Committee, including Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, outlined how they had introduced text that would mandate Blinken or a future secretary of state to submit a report on the steps taken to facilitate a credible investigation into Abu Akleh’s death. “We will continue working to get the full truth about this tragedy, ensure accountability, and make clear our unwavering support for freedom of the press and the safety of journalists around the world,” they said.
The support of the lawmakers “provided us with some comfort and solace,” said Abu Akleh, “but for two months we haven’t seen any meaningful action.”
They may face a long road ahead: Palestinian human rights are far from a bipartisan priority in Washington, while the Biden administration has already made clear its lack of interest in reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the moribund prospect of an independent Palestinian state. The Abu Akleh family has said they are willing to take the case to the International Criminal Court; but the ICC is an institution whose jurisdiction neither the United States nor Israel recognizes.
During his Middle East trip, Biden “was preaching about human rights,” said Abu Akleh. “We just hope the same values are applied to Palestinian lives.”
Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.