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Slain journalist’s brother calls for U.S. help on Israeli accountability

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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, Shireen, 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 requesting the United States to take over the investigation into his sister’s killing from the Israeli army, whom he says is “trying only to protect their own soldiers.”

As a US citizen, said Anton, her government owes her accountability. As a Palestinian, he’s hoping the galvanizing, global outpouring of support around her death will highlight, and potentially change, the system she covered for decades. The Israeli military 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,” said Anton, speaking by phone from his home in Mogadishu 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.”

People take part in a candelight vigil outside the UN ESCWA building to denounce the killing of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 12, 2022. Abu Akleh, 51, a prominent figure in the Arabic news service of Al-Jazeera channel, was shot dead on 11 May during a confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank city of Jenin.

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 just requesting that both sides share their findings with one another, which has not yet happened. The government has also yet to respond to Anton’s request to meet with Biden administration representatives during the mid July visit, which will include stops in Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia.

When asked if Biden would raise Shireen’s killing during the trip, a US 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 Biden would not shy away 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% of cases involving Palestinians who reported being subject to harm by Israeli soldiers. It said that soldiers killed more than 150 Palestinians during that time, with only 16 cases even investigated.

Legal experts who have for decades been pushing to prosecute soldiers suspected of wrongdoing, said the number of reported incidents are likely to be a modest reflection of the reality on the ground, as most Palestinians have given up even trying. In 2016, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, said that it would stop filing complaints of 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 non-governmental 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, as a result, 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,” said Sfard.

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 in 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 which the Israeli army has said may have been used in her killing.

“We have refused to cooperate in a shared investigation,” said Shtayyeh. “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 UN 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 US senators have 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 US 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.”

Rubin is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Tel Aviv. She covers news from Israel, the Palestinian territories and the region, with a focus on politics, culture, science and women’s health.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post.