By Lina Abu Akleh
This week, United States President Joe Biden is visiting Israel and the occupied West Bank, where his schedule includes meetings with Israeli leaders, an airbase visit and a trip to the Holocaust remembrance centre. There is another meeting that Biden should add to his itinerary; one with my family – the family of the late renowned Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh.
My aunt Shireen was killed early in the morning on May 11 in the Jenin refugee camp, just after she arrived there to report on an Israeli operation. Though Israel initially tried to place the blame for her death on Palestinians, investigations by the Associated Press, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the United Nations, and the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem all confirmed what my family already knew from eyewitness accounts of Shireen’s colleagues: an Israeli sniper shot my aunt in the head, just between her bullet proof vest (clearly marked with PRESS) and her protective helmet. To make matters worse, Israel attacked mourners as they attempted to pay their last respects to her.
As a little girl, I often sat next to Shireen as she reported live from home over the phone. After she signed off, I would take her notebooks to my bedroom, put on my plastic princess heels, perch on my red Lego table with my pink Barbie phone, and mimic Shireen’s report, signing off just as she had – “Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera”. As I got older, Shireen would take me to the office with her, and talk to me about the stories she was working on as I followed her around. She sometimes invited me to the weekly Friday breakfasts that she shared with her colleagues. In fact, I joined Shireen in this Friday ritual just nine days before she was killed. I never imagined this would be my last visit with Shireen to her office.
There is nothing the Biden administration can do to bring my aunt back. Biden won’t be able to revive the plans that Shireen and I had to travel to the US this summer, or restore Shireen’s tradition of playing classical Arabic music for my siblings and me on long car rides, making us guess the singer’s name. He won’t be able to return to me the person I considered not only my aunt, but my confidante, mentor, and my best friend.
Nonetheless, we hope Biden will sit down with us and be willing to hear from us what we expect the US government to do to ensure that Shireen’s killer is held accountable.
First and foremost, the US must refuse to permit Israel to sweep Shireen’s killing under the rug, as it has with the unlawful killings of so many other Palestinians in the past.
Biden should heed the call of the 57 members of Congress who have demanded a thorough, transparent investigation conducted by the FBI and State Department into Shireen’s killing. We want this investigation to reveal not only the chain of command and orders given when the shot was fired, but also to reveal what weapons were used in Shireen’s killing, and how those weapons were purchased.
If the weapon that killed my aunt is connected to US military aid, Biden must explain to us why the US government finds it acceptable that a foreign government kills US citizens with weapons purchased by US taxpayers.
In short, we would like Biden to do in Shireen’s case what his and previous US administrations have failed to do when other American citizens were killed by Israel: hold the killers accountable.
The US government has not done this for 78-year old Palestinian American Omar Assad, who was dragged from his car at a checkpoint in the West Bank six months ago, bound and gagged and left in a freezing construction site in the early hours of the morning where he suffered a massive heart attack.
It also did not seek accountability when 19-year-old Turkish American Furkan Dogan was shot by Israeli troops attacking a boat en route to Gaza with humanitarian aid in 2010.
There was no independent investigation or accountability for peace activist Rachel Corrie from Olympia, Washington, who was crushed to death in 2003 by an Israeli military bulldozer as she tried to protect the home of a Palestinian family in Gaza, either.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that he would like us to visit Washington, DC to express our concerns. While we appreciate the offer it is not clear why this is necessary given that Shireen was killed here, by an Israeli soldier, and President Biden could demand accountability in his meetings with Israeli officials here.
Most importantly, we want to tell Biden directly that meaningful justice for Shireen extends beyond my aunt. It is one step towards holding Israel accountable for the suffering of countless Palestinians who have been brutalised by decades of Israeli occupation and apartheid. It sends a signal that the US will no longer coddle Israel as it further entrenches its occupation of Palestinian lands.
Biden cannot bring Shireen back or lessen my family’s grief – but if he truly takes our pain to heart, he can take meaningful action that will finally end the impunity that Israel relies on as it violates our human rights and denies our freedom. Such action would protect future victims, and prevent future suffering for families like mine.
This is what my aunt would have wanted. This is what Shireen’s legacy deserves.