A woman drapes a keffiyeh on a banner calling for justice for slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during a rally to mark Nakba at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on May 15, 2022. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli's Whitewashing Probe Cannot Erase That the Murder of Shireen Abu Akleh Was a War Crime

The sniper clearly acted with reckless disregard for civilian life, which is a war crime.

The Israeli military issued a brazen whitewash of its killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and its shooting of her colleague Al Jazeera producer Ali al-Samoudi, on May 11 of this year. Using weasel words, the report admitted that it was "likely" that an Israeli sniper shot her dead. Since extensive video and eyewitness evidence proves that there were no militants in the area at the time of her killing, CNN had already concluded after an extensive investigation that the Israeli military killed Shireen "in a targeted attack."

The whole affair signals once again Washington's commitment to awarding Israel impunity for such killings, even of American Christians.

Shireen's colleague, Shatha Hanaysha, told CNN, ""We stood in front of the Israeli military vehicles for about five to ten minutes before we made moves to ensure they saw us. And this is a habit of ours as journalists, we move as a group and we stand in front of them so they know we are journalists, and then we start moving."

Video taken at the scene and reviewed by CNN showed that there was no gunfire and there were no clashes that could have provoked the Israeli sniper. The journalists were in full view of the Israeli military and had waved at the soldiers and drawn attention to their press jackets.

The Israeli sniper fired in a targeted way and over and over again suddenly and without provocation.

The sniper could have been under orders to take out the Al Jazeera journalists, who were covering an Israeli army raid on Palestinian territory, a raid that may have been anticipated to involve Israeli actions that the army was unwilling to see documented.

The Times of Israel reported that Israeli military spokesperson Ran Kochav spoke to Army Radio that day, remarking that Shireen had been "filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They're armed with cameras, if you'll permit me to say so." If Kochav's sentiments reflected the attitude of the Israeli brass and of then Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, It is possible that secret orders were given to send a message to Al Jazeera's reporters that they were unwelcome and seen as aiding the militants by their reportage. Bennett once boasted that he "had killed a lot of Arabs." We outsiders cannot know for certain whether there was an order to take out Shireen, or how how high up the chain of command it went. Only an impartial outside investigation could hope to uncover the truth here, and the Israeli government has not allowed any such thing.

The Israeli military is saying that it was all a horrible mistake by a loan sniper who feels just terrible about it.

Even if this unlikely story were true, it would not be exculpatory. That sniper clearly acted with reckless disregard for civilian life, which is a war crime.

Robin Geiss, a legal advisor to the International Committee of the Red Cross, explained,

"At first sight, one could get the impression that international humanitarian law does not provide a whole lot of protection for journalists, given that the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols contain only two explicit references to media personnel (Article 4 A (4) of the Third Geneva Convention and Article 79 of Additional Protocol I). However, if one reads these provisions in conjunction with other humanitarian rules, it is clear that the protection under existing law is quite comprehensive. Most importantly, Article 79 of Additional Protocol I provides that journalists are entitled to all rights and protections granted to civilians in international armed conflicts."

The Geneva Conventions and the two additional protocols have been signed by 168 United Nations member states, and 170 have signed the first additional protocol that contains language protecting journalists. The U.S. and Israel both signed the four 1949 Geneva Conventions but neither signed the additional protocols. By the 1970s when they were drafted, Israel had already embarked on the colonization of the Palestinian territories it had seized by main force in 1967, and its officials could already see that the protocols would serve as obstacles to that colonization effort.

Nevertheless, an instrument signed by 170 of the 193 countries in the world has a fair claim on being customary law and therefore applicable even to states that did not sign on to the additional protocols.

Article 79 of the Additional Protocol says,

"Art 79. Measures or protection for journalists

1. Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians within the meaning of Article 50, paragraph 1.

2. They shall be protected as such under the Conventions and this Protocol, provided that they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians, and without prejudice to the right of war correspondents accredited to the armed forces to the status provided for in Article 4 (A) (4) of the Third Convention.

3. They may obtain an identity card similar to the model in Annex II of this Protocol. This card, which shall be issued by the government of the State of which the Journalist is a national or in whose territory he resides or in which the news medium employing him is located, shall attest to his status as a journalist."

That is, just as killing civilians through reckless disregard for their lives and killing even though the shooter should have known the risk to civilian life are war crimes, so the killing of a journalist such as Abu Akleh under similar conditions is a war crime.

Since the Israeli government has now admitted the (high) likelihood that its sniper killed Shireen, surely it will now treat the killing as a form of manslaughter (at the very least) and punish the sniper? No, it won't. But surely it will pay reparations to Shireen's family? No, it won't. Surely the Biden administration will intervene to ensure justice is done for an American citizen like Shireen? No, it won't.

The whole affair signals once again Washington's commitment to awarding Israel impunity for such killings, even of American Christians. It isn't what we expect or deserve from our own government, but it is the reality.

Shireen's years of high-visibility journalism has inspired a new generation of Palestinian intellectuals. The only justice she will get will be the lives they lead and the investigations they carry out, under increasingly difficult circumstances.

© 2023 Juan Cole