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What the U.S. Should Say About the Death of Shireen Abu Akleh

Mark Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer
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Palestinian journalists gather during a demonstration demanding justice for slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Gaza City, ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's official visit in July.
Palestinian journalists gather during a demonstration demanding justice for slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Gaza City, ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's official visit in July.Credit: Mohammed Abed/AFP
Mark Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer

At around 6:30 A.M. on May 11, 2022, Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was preparing to report on another night of skirmishes between Palestinian militiamen and Israeli commandos in Jenin. A fresh flurry of shots rang out. She was struck once in the head. Her colleagues, scattering for cover, never saw the shooter.

By 7:18 A.M., the Palestinian Authority – which exercises no real governance over Jenin, a tenement town operating at the mercy of the Islamist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – was formally accusing the army of having killed the journalist. Minutes later, at 7:39 A.M., Husam Zomlot, Palestinian envoy to London, tweeted: “Israeli occupation forces assassinated our beloved journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while covering their brutality in Jenin.”

This was not just a rush to judgment. It was the beginning of a stampede. Countless other Palestinian officials have blamed Israel for Abu Akleh’s tragic death. But this comes as no surprise. For the Palestinians, Israeli culpability is a foregone conclusion. As the Palestinian National Authority’s prime minister put it, explaining why his government spurned Israeli offers to conduct a joint inquiry: “Those who fabricated the history of a people, stealing land and homeland, can fabricate a version of events.”

What has been surprising, however, is how the Biden administration has allowed itself to be conscripted into this anti-Israel pile-on. A White House tacit green light has spurred additional vitriol from a gallery of Democratic senators. One attention-seeking legislator trotted out a rostrum to hold a press conference last week in front of the State Department. It was pure theater. The State Department had already launched an investigation. In the absence of a witness or confession, the only way to determine who shot Abu Akleh was through ballistics. Yet the bullet provided to a U.S. general for testing by the Palestinians, after their much-delayed refusal, proved to be mangled beyond use.

The State Department concluded that Abu Akleh’s death was probably the result of “unintentional” Israeli fire, but it also noted that the ballistics test was “inconclusive.” That should have been the end of it. Yet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has allowed this ordeal to stretch out into its third month, calling for “accountability,” and pressuring the Israeli Defense Forces to quickly release the findings of its own investigation.

Perhaps a thorough Israeli investigation will uncover more evidence. If it doesn’t, however, as with so many war-zone casualties, the inconclusive findings may simply be the conclusion.

What is crystal clear though, is what is not often mentioned: Palestinian terrorists, who regularly use civilians as human shields, make it virtually inevitable that innocents like Abu Akleh will be caught in the crossfire. Her death occurred as the Israeli forces were responding to a spree of lethal terror attacks in its cities that tracked back to Jenin. Nevertheless, Israel was remarkably open to an investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, with the knowledge that such an investigation could potentially find one of its soldiers culpable.

It is against this backdrop that Secretary Blinken’s calls for “accountability” ring hollow. America’s top diplomat then went a step further and invited Abu Akleh’s niece last week to visit the State Department after its own investigation couldn’t determine what had happened. Somewhat predictably, the niece demanded that Washington see to it that an Israeli soldier is jailed for the killing and his commander prosecuted.

America’s seasoned diplomats know, even if our most progressive legislators don’t, that the U.S. would never submit its military justice to another country. We shouldn’t expect that of Israel. This isn’t just a matter of policy; it’s a recognition of Israel’s long-standing commitment to legal self-scrutiny even as it ensures the safety of its citizens.

This was the message that the White House and Mr. Blinken should have conveyed: Terrorism triggers security sweeps. War reporters admirably risk their lives. Terrorists use civilians, including reporters, as human shields. Soldiers make mistakes. Cross-fire deaths often go unsolved or unaddressed. And democratic allies, especially those who know first-hand the demands and perils of urban warfare, should acknowledge the fog that unavoidably comes in combat.

Mark Dubowitz is chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research.

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