Israeli Investigation of Shireen Abu Akleh's Death Fails to Convince Key U.S. Lawmakers

Senior Democratic Senators have offered legal language that calls for an independent U.S. investigation into the incident, and could potentially lead to unprecedented steps against the IDF in response. Their steps will increase the pressure on Biden over the subject

Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels
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Shireen Abu Akleh.
Shireen Abu Akleh.Credit: - - AFP
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – The Israeli military released earlier this month a summary of its investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, but key U.S. lawmakers remain dissatisfied with the Israeli findings and demand the Biden administration to take further action on the subject.

Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen and Patrick Leahy are attempting to require an independent State Department investigation into the matter. The two have introduced an amendment, along Senators Dick Durbin, Chris Murphy, Jeanne Shaheen and Jeff Merkley, which includes unprecedented language calling on the U.S. to see “whether section 620M of the FAA applies” to Abu Akleh’s case within 180 days. This is separate from the amendment passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that would require the State Department to provide senators with the July report overseen by the United States Security Coordinator.

The language in Leahy and Van Hollen's amendment refers to the so-called “Leahy Law,” which prohibits military assistance to foreign security forces that violate human rights. The law is named after the veteran Vermont Senator, who has stated that “an independent, credible investigation – meaning not by the IDF and not by the Palestinian Authority – but with their full cooperation, must be conducted and the findings made public. Whether her killing was intentional, reckless, or a tragic mistake, there must be accountability. And if it was intentional, and if no one is held accountable, then the Leahy Law must be applied.”

If a legally mandated and credible State Department investigation found that Israel committed an extrajudicial killing in violation of Leahy Law, according to U.S. law, then the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor would get involved and essentially sanction the IDF unit in question from U.S. military assistance. It is unclear, however, how the Leahy Law would operate in practice given how foreign military financing to Israel is legally stipulated.

It should be noted that the chances this amendment will eventually pass Congress as part of an end-of-year omnibus package are slim. However, from a political standpoint, it is significant – and from Israel’s point of view, concerning – that some of the most senior Senators in the Democratic party have signed onto such language and are pushing the Biden administration for an independent U.S. investigation into the incident.

This pressure from Congress was also evident over the summer when leading U.S. lawmakers met with the Abu Akleh family in Washington, as well as when Van Hollen grilled Barbara Leaf, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, on the administration’s failure to lead an independent probe.

Van Hollen was the first lawmaker to go on record to say both Israel and the U.S. have yet to satisfy the demand for accountability, joined by five progressive House members, including Rep. Andre Carson, who publicly committed to introducing standalone legislation stipulating an independent probe.

Senator Murphy, meanwhile told MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan that while he believes the U.S. has a special obligation to secure Israel and therefore he has not previously supported calls to condition U.S. aid to Israel, he was very worried about recent developments in the West Bank. “Some of [Israel’s] recent decisions are making conflict between Israel and the Palestinians more likely, not less likely,” he said. “I haven't gotten there yet, arguing for over conditions on that aid, but I think all of us are watching the behavior of the Israeli government very carefully,” Murphy added.

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