The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Slain journalist’s brother seeks U.S. help holding Israel to account

Anton Abu Akleh, second from left, and other mourners attend a memorial service for Shireen Abu Akleh in a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem on June 18. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
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JERUSALEM — For the brother of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian American reporter killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank, Joe Biden’s first visit as president to the region in July will be accompanied by a slim hope for justice.

Anton Abu Akleh has been regularly in touch with representatives from the U.S. government since May 11, when his sister, a veteran Al Jazeera correspondent, was fatally shot in the back of the head while reporting on an early-morning Israeli military raid in the Jenin Refugee Camp.

He has been asking the United States to take over the investigation into his sister’s killing from the Israeli army, which he says is “trying only to protect their own soldiers.”

How Shireen Abu Akleh was killed

As a U.S. citizen, Anton said, she is owed accountability by her government. As a Palestinian, he’s hoping the galvanizing, global outpouring of support after her death will highlight, and potentially change, the system she covered for decades. Israel has seen a decline in military prosecutions despite a steady rise in the killings of Palestinian civilians, according to data by human rights groups.

“Shireen is an American citizen, and every American citizen deserves protection,” Anton said, speaking by phone from his home in Mogadishu, Somalia, where he works as an administrative officer for the United Nations. “America is the strongest country in the world, and if it can’t do that, then there’s a serious problem.”

On May 15, Anton told Palestinian radio station al-Shams that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said to him on a phone call that the United States is encouraging a thorough investigation into the killing and that it would monitor both the Palestinian and Israeli steps going forward.

The United States has stopped short of launching its own probe and is requesting that both sides share their findings with each other, which has not yet happened. The administration has also not responded to Anton’s request to meet with Biden representatives during the mid-July visit, which will include stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia.

When asked whether Biden would raise Shireen’s killing during the trip, a U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman declined to answer directly. She said the president’s foreign policy is rooted in “values like promoting freedom of the press and human rights,” adding that Biden would not shy from “raising those issues with any foreign leader anywhere in the world.”

Palestinians and human rights activists, however, say that even if there was a U.S. probe, it would come up against an Israeli military that has for years evaded efforts to hold its members accountable.

According to military data from 2019 and 2020, the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din found that the Israeli military prosecuted only 2 percent of cases involving Palestinians who reported being subject to harm by Israeli soldiers. It said soldiers killed more than 150 Palestinians during that time, with only 16 cases investigated.

Legal experts who have for decades been pushing to prosecute soldiers suspected of wrongdoing said the number of reported incidents is likely to be a modest reflection of the reality on the ground because most Palestinians have given up trying to get justice. In 2016, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, said it would stop filing claims about harm to Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers after hundreds of complaints and dozens of military police cases were ignored.

Michael Sfard, legal counsel to several nongovernmental organizations challenging Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, said the military violence against civilians is shaped by a populace that, after several waves of intifadas, has become majority right-wing. “Trigger happiness” on the part of soldiers often increases when Gaza heats up or settler extremism crescendos, he said.

“There’s a growing feeling that the commander — and not talking about the army, talking about the political commander — is not just happy with, but is encouraging extremist violence,” Sfard said.

Palestinian officials have called Shireen’s killing an “assassination.” Last month, the Palestinian Authority published the results of its own inquiry and said it found that she was killed by a 5.56mm round fired by a Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatic rifle. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said at a June 19 memorial ceremony marking 40 days since the killing that the Palestinians have refused to hand over the bullet to either the Israelis or the Americans and have demanded the gun the Israeli army has said may have been used in her killing.

“We have refused to cooperate in a shared investigation,” Shtayyeh said. “Because he who fabricates the history of a people, steals land and homeland, can fabricate a narrative. We do not trust them.”

In anticipation of the Biden visit, activists have been looking to keep the pressure on, pointing to last week’s U.N. probe and those undertaken by The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN and the investigative group Bellingcat, which concluded with a high likelihood that an Israeli sniper was responsible for Shireen’s death. Last week, 24 U.S. senators sent a letter to Biden urging that the United States be “directly involved in investigating” the death.

The army has conceded that an Israeli sniper may have fired the lethal shot, but it has repeatedly said that no definitive conclusions could be reached as long as the Palestinians refused to hand over the bullet.

For Anton, the dispute has sharpened his resolve to make his sister’s death a “lesson to the U.S. administration, to start to see some positive action.”

“Nothing can compensate for Shireen’s death,” he added. “But to hold someone accountable, that’s the least we can do for Shireen.”

Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington contributed to this report.

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