Washington, DC – Hours after Israeli forces fatally shot Shireen Abu Akleh in May, the US Department of State called for the veteran Al Jazeera journalist’s killers to be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law”.
Months later, after Israel said this week that there is a “high possibility” that one of its soldiers killed Abu Akleh, United States officials have redefined the meaning of accountability in the case.
The Biden administration now is calling on Israel to review its policies to mitigate civilian harm, effectively dropping its earlier demand for punishing those responsible for the killing of Abu Akleh, who was an American citizen.
“It’s a very embarrassing response by the US administration. It just shows at this point that they are doing their best to cover up and just close the case,” Lina Abu Akleh, the slain journalist’s niece, told Al Jazeera in an interview on Tuesday.
Lina, who has been advocating for justice for her aunt, added that “the definition of accountability” has changed for Washington because Abu Akleh was a Palestinian American who was killed by Israel.
“This just goes on to show the bias and their lack of commitment to accountability and to their own values,” she said of the US administration.
Abu Akleh’s killing on May 11 has sparked international outrage and calls from her family and press freedom advocates for an independent investigation.
Top US officials, including President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, also had called for “accountability” when asked about the case.
On Tuesday, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel was pressed by reporters on Washington’s about-face on the meaning of accountability, but he kept repeating that the administration would pressure Israel to reassess its rules of engagement going forward.
“The role we’re continuing to play is pressing Israel to closely review its policies and practices to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” Patel said.
When asked what “accountability” meant, he said again: “We’re continuing to press Israel to review its policies and practices.” Patel reiterated a variation of that statement seven times during Tuesday’s news briefing.
Lina Abu Akleh called Patel’s efforts “to deflect” from the issue “shameful”, slamming Washington’s apparent inability “to define what accountability looks like”.
The crux of the “defense” in this IDF report is that a soldier was “returning fire” from militants. But investigations @NYTimes @AP @CNN @washingtonpost & @UN found no such firing at the time. This underscores need for independent US inquiry into this American journalist’s death. https://t.co/vblvL5Euha
— Senator Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) September 6, 2022
Meanwhile, the Israeli government on Monday released a report saying that there is a “high possibility” that one of its soldiers shot Abu Akleh, but dismissed the killing as “accidental”, ruling out the opening of a criminal probe into the incident.
Israel initially had falsely blamed Palestinian fighters for the killing of Abu Akleh, who was covering an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank but was not standing in the immediate vicinity of the fighting when she was fatally shot.
Video footage, several witnesses and multiple investigations by independent media outlets show that there were no armed Palestinians in the area where Abu Akleh and other journalists were standing before Israeli soldiers started firing at them.
Lina Abu Akleh stressed that the killing of her aunt was intentional, noting that the shot that killed her was “so precise” that it hit the small area between her helmet and protective vest.
“We know that there was continuous fire at her and her colleagues even after they made themselves known, but she was still shot,” Lina Abu Akleh said. “Let’s not forget that 16 bullets were fired towards their direction.”
The younger Abu Akleh and her relatives have been leading calls for a US-led investigation into the killing, a demand that has found receptive ears in the halls of Congress. But Biden administration officials have dismissed the demand, stressing that Israel can investigate its own military.
‘She just loved life’
Lina Abu Akleh said although Washington appears ready to turn the page, the family will continue to fight for justice via all the possible avenues, including the International Criminal Court.
She also called on US reporters to keep pressuring the Biden administration for an independent investigation to ensure accountability for the killing of a fellow journalist.
“It’s easy to lose hope when you see the lack of action from the US, from the international community — the fact that there are no investigations,” she told Al Jazeera. “But it’s also encouraging when I see that we have the support of many members of Congress on the Hill. We have the support of millions of people from all around the world.
“It’s been four months, and people are still supporting our cause, supporting our fight for justice for Shireen. So that does fill me with some sense of hope, and it’s what pushes me and my family to continue our fight for justice.”
Lina Abu Akleh said amid this push for accountability, however, the family has not been able to grieve and process the loss of their relative.
“She was my only aunt,” Lina Abu Akleh said. “We are a very small family of six, so it’s very upsetting that she is no longer with us. We lost her too soon. She just loved life. She always made me feel better. She was always there to console me, to guide me.”