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Seeking justice for Abu Akleh and Israel’s apartheid victims

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Picture: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP – A mural depicting slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is illuminated on a street in the town of Umm Al-Fahm in northern Israel, earlier this month. The Israeli army conceded that one of its soldiers had likely shot Palestinian-American reporter Abu Akleh in May after having mistaken her for a militant.

By Shenilla Mohamed

Shireen Abu Akleh was holding a notebook, gathering the facts and reporting them honestly. She died at the hands of a murky organisation holding precise weaponry but using it unlawfully, consistently ignoring its own procedures and international standards, covering up facts that it found uncomfortable.

That organisation is the Israeli army. Within it, someone pulled the trigger, someone green-lighted the shooting, and someone decided to shield those criminally responsible for the killing. For a military that prides itself on a high level of training and the precision of its weaponry, the Israeli military “accidentally” hit an awful lot of civilians.

On May 11, Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist with 25 years of experience working on the front line for Al Jazeera, was killed by an Israeli soldier. Another journalist, Ali al-Samoudi, was shot and injured nearby. They had been covering a raid by Israeli forces in Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

These simple facts – who did what, where, when, to whom: the basics of good journalism – shocked all of us watching the news that morning. But the Israeli army’s evasion of responsibility in the following months, culminating in its statement last week, made us angry.

The Israeli army said there was “high possibility” that one of its soldiers had killed Abu Akleh, but that no charges would be pressed. For decades, Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organisations have published ample evidence of unlawful killings committed by the Israeli army.

Yet Israel’s rules on opening fire have still not been brought into line with international standards, and impunity has permeated the military, legal and political ranks. The persistent disregard for human life, human rights, justice and truth makes the failures of the Israeli authorities a deliberate policy. Amnesty International has found that the pattern of unlawful killings forms part of Israel’s regime of oppression and domination over Palestinians – a system and crime of apartheid.

States have an obligation to investigate all unlawful killings in a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial manner. Eliminating impunity in cases of killed journalists is crucial to achieving a safe environment for the media.

The Israeli army sent the opposite message about Abu Akleh’s killing: it ignored independently researched evidence from multiple sources including Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, investigative organisation Bellingcat, reliable witnesses from Al-Jazeera and other media, and forensic experts working with CNN. Whether the military’s investigation was “prompt” is for readers to judge: does it take nearly four months to write two pages of whitewash?

The statement of September 5 is also not “thorough”: The Military Advocate General’s Office concluded that “there is no suspicion of committing a criminal offence justifying the opening of an investigation by the Ministry of Defence to find out the circumstances of the death of the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh”.

This decision follows the position taken by the Military Advocate General, Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, already on May 19 when she declined to order a probe by the Military Police Criminal Investigation Division. Neither is the investigation “independent and impartial”: the military investigated itself.

The Military Advocate General’s Office is the same department that gives legal advice to officers. More generally, in the few cases where Israeli military investigations have been conducted, the overwhelming majority are closed without conclusions let alone prosecutions. The findings are not published.

According to Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din, “only 2% of all complaints made by Palestinians after being harmed by Israeli soldiers in 2019–2020 resulted in the prosecution of suspects”. In short, Israeli investigations of unlawful killings and possible war crimes have been wholly inadequate. Abu Akleh’s killing is no exception.

Therefore, Amnesty International is calling on the International Criminal Court Prosecutor to consider including Abu Akleh’s case, and those of all apparently unlawfully killed Palestinians, including other journalists harmed while doing their jobs, as well as the crime of apartheid, in their investigation into the situation in Palestine.

• Abu Akleh is not the only Palestinian journalist recently targeted: Israeli soldiers beat Basil al-Adraa on May 8 near the village of al-Tuwani in the southern West Bank of the OPT, while he was reporting on a demolition order.

• Journalist Rami Khatib was attacked by Israel’s police on April 25 on the Al-Aqsa mosque esplanade in East Jerusalem. Rami Khatib’s arm was broken, and he had bruises all over his body and head.

• Ahmed Abu Hussein was wearing a press vest when he was fatally shot by an Israeli soldier on April 13, 2018, while he was covering “Great March of Return” protests for Voice of the People Radio in the northern Gaza city of Jabalia.

• Yasser Murtaja was a cameraman who co-founded a media company in the Gaza Strip. An Israeli sniper killed him, though he was wearing a press vest, on April 6, 2018.

According to Unesco, 22 journalists have been killed in the OPT since 2002. We want to see truth, not whitewashes, when we watch the news: this is why the fate of Abu Akleh matters to all of us. We won’t see that truth in a world where journalists are killed with impunity.

The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Freedom of expression is key for pressing for governmental transparency and accountability.

To preserve this fundamental right, and ensure public access to reliable information, reporters working in areas of armed conflict must be provided with enhanced protection measures by the authorities. The truth that the Israeli authorities seek to obscure is that the system they are imposing is apartheid.

Mohamed is the Executive Director for Amnesty International South Africa.