Israel hates being held accountable. This is especially true when it comes to its security force’s conduct in occupied Palestine. On December 6, Al Jazeera filed a formal request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, stating that she was deliberately killed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
Al Jazeera’s submission to the ICC follows one filed by Abu Akleh’s family in September.
These requests to the ICC are much needed acts of holding the IDF accountable for its actions in the West Bank. It is difficult to swallow the IDF narrative that Abu Akleh’s death was accidental, particularly when one considers their prior behaviour against Palestinian journalists.
On May 11, 2022, Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian-American journalist of 25 years, was reporting on an IDF raid of a Jenin refugee camp when she was murdered by the IDF. Her colleague, Ali al-Samudi, was also shot, but survived.
Shatha Hanyasha, also a journalist, attempted to reach out to Abu Akleh after she was shot but was prevented from helping her colleague.
“They were shooting at me,” she said, while giving testimony at the UN.
All three journalists were wearing helmets and blue flak jackets with “PRESS” printed in large letters on them, which were clearly visible.
Abu Akleh was exceptionally well-known in Palestine and in the Arab world, having worked for Al Jazeera since 1997. She was well-respected by her colleagues and an inspiration for young Palestinian women interested in journalism. Her death caused an outpouring of grief, with thousands paying their respects both on and offline.
Abu Akleh’s funeral was one of the largest Palestinian funerals in the last two decades.
When her remains were being transported from the hospital to the cemetery, Israeli security forces attacked mourners with batons and stun grenades — an action that was internationally condemned.
Getting the story straight
Immediately after Abu Akleh’s murder, the Israeli state blamed Palestinian gunmen for the shooting. Over the next few months, their story changed.
The shifting narrative is typical, and an attempt to avoid blame and accountability. In 2003, Welsh journalist James Miller was shot and killed by an IDF lieutenant. Israel’s initial account was that Miller was caught in “crossfire” with Palestinians. Israel only admitted fault following a British-led investigation. IDF personnel were later accused of tampering with and hiding evidence, as well as changing their stories when questioned.
Miller, like Abu Akleh, was clearly identifiable as a member of the press.
In September 2022, the Israeli state concluded that it was “very likely” Abu Akleh had been accidentally killed by an IDF soldier.
The Washington Post, Associated Press, and the New York Times conducted their own investigations, as did the United Nations’ Human Rights Office. All concluded that the shot most likely came from the gun of an IDF soldier. These findings also dispute the IDF’s claim that shooting by Palestinian gunmen could be the possible cause of Abu Akleh’s death. No other shooters were near the journalists.
In November, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also opened an investigation into Abu Akleh’s death. This highly unusual move by the United States was immediately criticized by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Israel will not cooperate with any external investigations, Gantz tweeted.
Perhaps it is because of who Abu Akleh was that so many investigations were conducted quickly by credible news organizations, research groups, and governments. Few slain Palestinian journalists in the West Bank receive such international pressure to investigate their deaths, or justice of any kind.
Justice cannot be had in the absence of truth. Independent investigations are a form of truth-telling and holding perpetrators accountable.
The individual who killed Abu Akleh should be held accountable for their actions, not shielded from the consequences. The IDF and the Israeli state should be investigated by the ICC.
Hostility to journalists
Abu Akleh’s death is representative of the blatant violence Israel shows towards members of the fourth estate, especially Palestinian journalists.
Israel should not be able to hide behind a veil of democratic legitimacy, nor should it be able to hand-wave away legitimate criticism. What democracy executes journalists in broad daylight without consequence?
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), at least 30 journalists, the majority of whom are Palestinian, have been killed by Israeli forces since 2000. This does not include the 144 journalists who have been subject to intimidation and violence by Israeli security personnel since 2018.
How many journalists have to die, be maimed, or have their livelihoods destroyed, before the IDF’s actions stop being labelled as accidents? It cannot be accidental if it happens on a regular basis.
Bringing in the ICC
Al Jazeera and Abu Akleh’s family say that she was targeted.
Cameron Doley, legal counsel for Al Jazeera, stated during a conference in the Hague that, in addition to targeting Abu Akleh, “the evidence shows that this deliberate killing was part of a wider IDF campaign to target and silence Al Jazeera.”
At the same conference, RSF Advocacy Director Antoine Bernard, strongly criticized Israel’s actions towards journalists, stating that they are war crimes.
“Independent investigation, prosecution, arrest warrants, are long overdue for accountability to prevail at last,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s legal counsel urged the office of the prosecutor (OTP) to investigate Abu Akleh’s death. Al Jazeera’s legal team and Abu Akleh’s family, represented by her niece Lina Abu Akleh, criticized the lack of action from the OTP and the ICC.
Lina Abu Akleh noted that the state of Israel is almost never held accountable for its crimes, creating a culture of impunity. In September, Israel stated that no IDF personnel will be investigated or punished despite their findings. No Israeli soldier has been held to account for murdering a journalist, despite all the evidence.
The lack of accountability is systemic.
An investigation is a move toward justice. Unfortunately, it will not be a cure-all, but it is a start. It will also set a precedent — Israel’s war crimes will go neither unpunished nor unnoticed.
It is difficult to say if the OTP will investigate, and what may come of it. Even the mere discussion of the investigation has been met with hostility by Israel. This may be, in part, why the ICC is dragging its feet.
If no investigation is conducted, one thing is certain: the culture of impunity has begun to show cracks. And we can all see them.