A week on, what does Shireen Abu Akleh's killing say about being a Palestinian American?

It seems as if US citizenship offers no special protection for Palestinian Americans

A tribute to Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank, in Nazareth, on Monday. Reuters
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The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh has left a great many people furious. Furious that a wonderful woman journalist has been taken from the world. Furious because of the predictable way Israeli authorities have responded to this tragedy. And furious at the US for its failure to take a principled stand to ensure that the truth is known about Abu Akleh’s death and that there is accountability for it.

Much has already been written about Abu Akleh. She was, in addition to being a Palestinian, an American citizen and a journalist who for the past 25 years has been reporting from Palestine. She wasn’t just a journalist, she was a storyteller who, like other greats in her profession, was able to get “under the skin” of an event to lay bare its human drama. Where Palestinian officials failed, she succeeded.

Abu Akleh endeavoured to bring to life the stories of individuals and families bearing up under the indignity, pain and injustice of the occupation. Because of that, she posed a greater danger to the occupation than any gunman ever could. She threatened a dehumanising narrative that reduced Palestinians to faceless objects.

The US refusal to hold Israel to the same standard it insists upon for other countries is upsetting

In this context, it was revealing that the Israeli military spokesperson described Abu Akleh and her colleague, Ali Samodi, who was shot in the back, as being “armed with cameras, if you will permit me to say so”. That is what good journalists do – they arm themselves with cameras and laptops. They witness events as they happen and tell stories so that readers and viewers can understand the human drama that is unfolding.

The Israeli government’s response to Abu Akleh’s killing has been predictable. It involved a combination of denying, lying, and obfuscating what may have happened.

Even before the military investigated the killing, the early Israeli response was that they were “looking into the possibility that journalists were injured, possibly by Palestinian gunfire”. Another spokesperson added: “I don’t think we killed her…if we indeed killed her, we’ll take responsibility, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.”

While this effort at deflection was taking place, Israeli authorities took another tack, claiming they had offered to conduct a joint investigation with the Palestinians, even as the Israeli press noted no such offer had been made. After reading press reports of this “joint investigation”, the Palestinians rejected the “offer”, saying, “No one approached us and no one offered anything…Whoever wants a joint investigation knows who to turn to.”

This led an Israeli minister to suggest that the Palestinian refusal was “perhaps to cover up the truth”.

The effort to obfuscate and deflect blame was also in evidence in an Israeli Foreign Ministry tweet which read: “Palestinian terrorists, firing indiscriminately, are likely to have hit…Shireen Abu Aqla”. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett added: “Our forces from the IDF returned fire as accurately, carefully, and responsibly as possible. Sadly…Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in the exchange.”

To create further confusion, the Israeli side offered a video which they claimed showed the direction from which the bullets may have been fired by Palestinians. An Israeli human rights group using satellite maps debunked this claim by showing that it was impossible for Palestinian gunmen, given where they were located, to have fired through walls and around corners and hit Abu Akleh and Samodi.

To answer why the Israeli government might engage in such a relentless effort to obfuscate, one need only look at an article that appeared in the Israeli press the day after Shireen’s killing. It was written by the Israeli general who had been in charge of the division that was responsible for killing 12-year-old Muhammad Al Durrah in 2000. That killing was captured on camera and the image of a little boy being shielded by his father amidst a hail of bullets became iconic. In the article, the general confesses that he erred in immediately accepting responsibility, noting that in the days that followed other “explanations” were posited – including that it was all a hoax staged by the Palestinians to besmirch the good name of the Israeli military. The lesson he learnt was to not admit to anything up front. Better to wait for talking points that can muddy the waters for the public.

This is the approach suggested by the famous Marx Brothers’ comedic line: “Who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Finally, there’s the equally frustratingly predictable US response to Abu Akleh’s killing that was in evidence at the State Department briefing the day of her death.

Israeli police attack group carrying journalist Shireen Abu Akleh's coffin

Israeli police attack group carrying journalist Shireen Abu Akleh's coffin

The spokesperson opened with: “We are absolutely heartbroken to learn of the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh…We send our deepest condolences…and strongly condemn her killing as we do the killing of journalists around the world…We call for an immediate and thorough and full investigation and full accountability. Investigating attacks on independent media and prosecuting those responsible are of paramount importance.”

That resolve, however, faded under intense questioning by the journalists present at the press session. While insisting that the investigation be full and thorough and that there be accountability, the spokesperson resorted to the usual deflections. When reporters pointed to instances where Israel either exonerated itself or only offered a slap on the wrist to its forces who had been found guilty of atrocities, the spokesperson would only reaffirm that the US had full confidence in Israel’s ability to investigate itself.

The US refusal to hold Israel to the same standard it insists upon for other countries is upsetting. More so in this case because Abu Akleh is a journalist and a US citizen. In the more than four decades that I’ve been raising cases of US citizens in Israel who’ve been killed, arrested without charge, tortured, had properties confiscated or been denied entry, the US response has been the same: expressions of concern; quietly discussing the matter with their Israeli counterparts; and then doing nothing, as the issue is forgotten outside of Palestinian circles and those of their supporters.

The result is that Israel often operates with a sense of impunity and Palestinians are left defenceless. In the case of Palestinian Americans, the message sent is that to the Israeli and US governments, US citizenship offers no special protection. And so, I’m furious.

Published: May 18, 2022, 4:00 AM