One hundred days after Israeli forces killed Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the Biden administration has made no concrete effort to secure accountability for her killing, nor has it moved to independently investigate it despite dozens of members of Congress calling on the administration to do so.
Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera journalist and a household name across the Middle East, was killed on May 11 while reporting on an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. She was shot in the head while wearing a clearly visible press vest, standing nowhere near the fighting that had taken place earlier that morning. The killing was swiftly condemned by human rights and press freedom groups across the world. Within weeks, half a dozen independent investigations, including one by the United Nations, concluded that the bullet that killed her came from Israeli forces — with the U.N. noting that it had been “well-aimed.”
But U.S. officials have yet to take any concrete action over the killing by Israel of a U.S. citizen, and it’s unclear whether they have any plans to do so. Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with members of the Abu Akleh family in Washington, D.C., after their request to meet President Joe Biden during his July trip to the Middle East went unanswered. Blinken made no commitments to them other than greater transparency and more direct communication — which he promised after the family members noted that they were learning of U.S. statements on the killing from the news, rather than directly from U.S. officials.
“There were no promises made, no commitments. We expressed our concern, we expressed our disappointment with the way the U.S. has been handling the killing of Shireen, and we expressed how ridiculous it is that the family of a U.S. citizen still has to ask the U.S. to do the bare minimum,” Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen’s niece, told The Intercept in an interview this week.
While Blinken seemed genuine in his condolences, she added, “there wasn’t anything of substance.” Blinken told the family that their most pressing request — an independent, U.S. investigation of the killing — was outside the scope of the State Department’s authority and that he could not refer the case to the Justice Department, which would need to authorize such an inquiry.
“The entire time, there was a lot of deflection, a lack of answers,” Abu Akleh said. Since the visit with Blinken, the family has not heard from him, and despite his reassurances that he would keep them informed, they learned from the news that he had asked Israel to expedite a conclusion to its own investigation. “But that’s not what we asked him,” said Abu Akleh. “Because we know how that’s going to turn out. We’re not expecting anything from the Israelis. What we’re expecting is the U.S. to do its job.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department declined to comment.
The Biggest Test
While in Washington last month, the Abu Aklehs also met with more than a dozen members of Congress, several of whom spoke publicly in support of the family’s quest for justice.
Those meetings followed a flurry of statements and legislative efforts in the weeks and months since Abu Akleh’s killing. To date, such efforts have included a letter led by Democratic Reps. André Carson of Indiana, Lou Correa of California, and Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, signed by 57 members of Congress, calling on the State Department and FBI to investigate the killing, as well a similar letter by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and 23 other senators. After the State Department issued a widely criticized statement on the killing over the July 4 holiday, Van Hollen and others issued a new letter, asking a detailed list of questions about the U.S. government’s response to the killing. Separately, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, where Abu Akleh had been a resident, also sent a letter requesting a “senior-level classified briefing on the investigation details, including American involvement.”
Meanwhile, Carson introduced an amendment to the defense budget, supported by other progressive members of Congress, seeking to force a U.S. investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing and any U.S. defense material implicated in it. After that failed, Carson announced stand-alone legislation seeking the same outcome. While these proposals aim to force the U.S. government to address Abu Akleh’s killing, they are fairly limited in scope and don’t address broader, systemic human rights violations by Israel that the U.S. government could also address under existing U.S. laws, including foreign assistance and arms exports legislation.
The Abu Aklehs are not the first American family dealing with the U.S. government’s inaction in the aftermath of a killing by Israeli forces. Last month, The Intercept published a long feature about the yearslong crusade by the family of Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist killed in Gaza in 2003, to lobby U.S. officials for justice — in vain.
The Corries chose to break their silence about their private conversations with U.S. officials precisely because they feared that the Abu Akleh family would be forced to endure the same ordeal. “They shouldn’t have to be asking the exact same questions we were asking in 2003,” Sarah Corrie, Rachel’s sister, told The Intercept. “My question to the Biden administration is: What are you doing differently for Shireen’s family that you didn’t do in our case, so that they will get accountability?”
After their meetings in Washington last month, the Abu Aklehs felt that they had “strong allies on the Hill,” Lina Abu Akleh said. But so far there has been no progress. The statements of support marked significant momentum around a cause that many in Washington have long been reticent to embrace — but they are only statements for now.
“We told the family, ‘After this trip, everything’s just going to come to a screeching halt, and it’s going to be on us to build it back up again,’” said Brad Parker, a legislative consultant at the Center for Constitutional Rights who has been working with the Abu Aklehs to coordinate meetings with U.S. officials. “These narrow events over the years, since Rachel’s killing, created these moments where it feels like there’s this really significant step forward on the policy front, but then it doesn’t really translate into concrete action. This is maybe the biggest test.”
For their part, the Abu Aklehs plan to continue to lobby the U.S. government for action with what Lina Abu Akleh described as a mixture of skepticism and hope.
“If the U.S. does not want to conduct an investigation, what does this say? It gives the green light for other governments to target U.S. citizens, U.S. journalists, without any accountability,” she said. “Our hope right now lies in the hands of the members of Congress who have the power to make a change. So in a way we are hopeful, but the U.S. could have done something from day one, and they chose not to.”