It’s been over a year since Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed while on assignment covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank. Even though Israeli officials initially suggested that Palestinian militants were responsible for her death, several investigations by various news outlets, including CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, found that claim to be almost certainly false. The United Nations reached the same conclusion, and eventually, the US State Department did too. Finally, in September, the Israeli military acknowledged a “high probability” that one of its soldiers killed her, though insisted it was a mistake.
Earlier this month, exactly a year after Abu Akleh was killed, the Israeli military issued an apology. “I think it’s an opportunity for me to say here that we are very sorry of the death of Shireen Abu Akleh,” Daniel Hagari, the Israeli Defense Forces’ chief spokesperson, said in an interview with CNN. “She was a journalist, a very established journalist. In Israel we value our democracy, and in a democracy we see high value in journalism and in a free press. We want journalists to feel safe in Israel, especially in war time, even if they criticize us.”
That was a welcome step in the right direction, but legitimate questions remain about Israel’s commitment to holding its military accountable. After all, none of the personnel involved are known to have been held to account so far, and even if the killing was unintentional, as Israel says, that’s a serious mistake that should not be glossed over by any military. Abu Akleh and her colleagues were wearing protective gear that clearly labeled them as “press.” Without taking any known disciplinary action or reviewing its rules of engagement and figuring out how this could have been avoided, how can the IDF reassure journalists that they can report on its conduct freely?
Israel must answer these questions. Until it does, its failure to do so is putting the United States’ commitment to a free press to the test. “No journalist — American or not — should have to risk their lives and livelihoods in pursuit of that truth,” President Biden said in a statement marking World Press Freedom Day earlier this month. Articulating that ideal is certainly refreshing after his predecessor deemed the press the enemy of the people, but living up to it requires more than just saying the right words.
Indeed, Abu Akleh was not only a member of the press but also a US citizen. Yet, despite some diplomatic efforts, the Biden administration has so far allowed some questions about her killing to go unanswered.
In the year since she was killed, the administration has been less than transparent. Last July, the State Department released a statement, saying that an “extremely detailed” forensic analysis overseen by the US security coordinator determined that the IDF was likely responsible for Abu Akleh’s death. It concluded that there is “no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances.” Making that assertion requires some evidence to back it up, especially given that other reviews reached the opposite conclusion — that Abu Akleh was targeted. But no such evidence was ever provided, and the United States has not made the analysis available for the public to review.
The US security coordinator recently submitted a new report to the State Department, and Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland has repeatedly asked the administration for more information about it. According to Axios, Van Hollen says that his office was told that the State Department plans to make some changes to the report before it sends it to Congress. Given that a journalist and US citizen was killed on assignment abroad, the public deserves more transparency than this, and either the Biden administration or Congress should ensure that the security coordinator’s findings are released.
In a statement to the editorial board, the State Department didn’t answer a question about whether it will release the findings. Instead, a spokesperson said, “Not only was Shireen a US citizen, but she was a reporter who earned the respect of audiences around the world. Press freedom remains a bedrock of democracy. We continue to underscore the importance of accountability in her killing, and an important part of accountability is preventing similar tragedies in the future. Senior US officials, including the Secretary, have engaged with Israel to this end.”
It should be noted that the United States has taken some encouraging steps in the way of pressuring Israel to do more. The FBI has reportedly opened its own investigation into the matter, for example, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asked Israel to review its military’s rules of engagement. But nudges here and there aren’t enough. Given that Israel has vowed not to cooperate with investigations like the FBI’s, the State Department should be more transparent in order to add more public pressure.
Biden has rightly been shedding light on Russia’s wrongful detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and the disappearance of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist, in Syria. He should be just as vocal about getting to the bottom of Abu Akleh’s death and pursuing any necessary accountability. While it’s true that diplomacy often requires a delicate touch, there are times when the United States must take a clear and principled stance. A slain American journalist is one of them.
Source: The Boston Globe