Symbolic but significant: Why the decision to investigate Abu Akleh’s murder is unprecedented
A mural of slain of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh who was shot dead during an Israeli military raid in the West Bank town of Jenin, adorns a wall in Gaza City, May 15, 2022.The Israeli military acknowledged in September 2022 that one of its soldiers likely killed Abu Akleh in May, saying its own investigation shows she was shot by mistake and that no one will face punishment. | Adel Hana / AP

The recent decision by the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation into the killing, last May, of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is not a game-changer, but important and worthy of reflection, nonetheless.

Based on the long trajectory of U.S. military and political support of Israel, and Washington’s constant shielding of its ally from any accountability for its illegal occupation of Palestine, one can confidently conclude that there will not be any actual investigation.

A real investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh could open up a Pandora’s box of other findings pertaining to Israel’s many other illegal practices and violations of international—and even U.S.—law. For example, U.S. investigators would have to look into the Israeli use of U.S.-supplied weapons and munitions, which are used daily to suppress Palestinian protests, confiscate Palestinian land, impose military sieges on civilian areas, and so on. The U.S. Leahy Law specifically prohibits “the U.S. Government from using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights.” 

Moreover, an investigation would also mean accountability, if it concludes that Abu Akleh, a U.S. citizen, was deliberately killed by an Israeli soldier, as several human rights groups have already concluded.

That, too, is implausible. In fact, one of the main pillars that define the U.S.-Israel relationship is that the former serves the role of the protector of the latter at the international stage. Every Palestinian, Arab or international attempt at investigating Israeli crimes has decisively failed simply because Washington systematically blocked every potential investigation under the pretense that Israel is capable of investigating itself, alleging at times that any attempt to hold Israel accountable is a witch hunt that is tantamount to anti-Semitism.

According to Axios, this was the gist of the official Israeli response to the U.S. decision to open an investigation into the murder of the Palestinian journalist. “Our soldiers will not be investigated by the FBI or by any other foreign country or entity,” outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said, adding: “We will not abandon our soldiers to foreign investigations.”

Though Lapid’s is the typical Israeli response, it is quite interesting, if not shocking, to see it used in a context involving an American investigation. Historically, such language was reserved for investigations by the United Nations Human Rights Council, and by international law judges, the likes of Richard Falk, Richard Goldstone and Michael Lynk. Time and again, such investigations were conducted or blocked without any Israeli cooperation and under intense American pressure.

In 2003, the scope of Israeli intransigence and U.S. blind support of Israel reached the point of pressuring the Belgian government to rewrite its own domestic laws to dismiss a war crimes case against late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Moreover, despite relentless efforts by many U.S.-based rights groups to investigate the murder of an American activist, Rachel Corrie, the U.S. refused to even consider the case, relying instead on Israel’s own courts, which exonerated the Israeli soldier who drove a bulldozer over the body of 23-year-old Corrie in 2003, for simply urging him not to demolish a Palestinian home in Gaza.

Worse still, in 2020, the U.S. government went as far as sanctioning International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and other senior prosecution officials who were involved in the investigation of alleged U.S. and Israeli war crimes in Afghanistan and Palestine.

All of this in mind, one must then ask questions regarding the timing and the motives of the U.S. investigation.

Axios revealed that the decision to investigate the killing of Abu Akleh was “made before the November 1 elections in Israel, but the Justice Department officially notified the Israeli government three days after the elections.” In fact, the news was only revealed to the media on Nov. 14, following both Israel and U.S. elections on Nov. 1 and 8, respectively.

Officials in Washington were keen on communicating the point that the decision was not political, and neither was it linked to avoiding angering the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington days before the U.S. elections nor to influencing the outcome of Israel’s own elections. If that is the case, then why did the U.S. wait until Nov. 14 to leak the news? The delay suggests serious backdoor politics and massive Israeli pressure to dissuade the U.S. from making the announcement public, thus making it impossible to reverse the decision.

Knowing that a serious investigation will most likely not take place, the U.S. decision must have been reasoned in advance to be a merely political one. If perhaps symbolic and ultimately inconsequential, the unprecedented and determined U.S. decision was predicated on solid reasoning: 

First, President Joe Biden had a difficult experience managing the political shenanigans of then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his time as vice president in the Obama Administration (2009-2017). Now that Netanyahu is poised to return to the helm of Israeli politics, the Biden Administration is in urgent need of political leverage over Jerusalem (the now U.S.-recognized Israeli capital thanks to Donald Trump), with the hope of controlling the extremist tendencies of the Israeli leader and his government. 

Second, the failure of the Republican so-called “Red Wave” to marginalize Democrats as a sizable political and legislative force in Congress has further emboldened the Biden Administration to finally reveal the news about the investigation—that is, if we are to believe that the decision was indeed made in advance.

Third, the strong showing of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian candidates in the U.S. mid-term elections—in both national and state legislative elections—further bolsters the progressive agenda within the Democratic Party. Even a symbolic decision to investigate the killing of a U.S. citizen represents a watershed moment in the relationship between the Democratic Party establishment and its more progressive grassroots constituencies. In fact, reelected Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was very quick to respond to the news of the investigation, describing it as “the first step towards real accountability.” 

Though the U.S. investigation of Abu Akleh’s murder is unlikely to result in any kind of justice, it is a very important moment in U.S.-Israeli and U.S.-Palestinian relationships. It simply means that, despite the entrenched and blind U.S. support for Israel, there are margins in U.S. policy that can still be exploited, if not to reverse U.S. backing of Israel, at least to weaken the supposedly “unbreakable bond” between the two countries.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Ramzy Baroud
Ramzy Baroud

Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about Palestine, the Middle East, and global issues for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, an editor, an author of several books, and the founder of The Palestine Chronicle. His books include 'The Second Palestinian Intifada', 'My Father Was a Freedom Fighter' and 'The Last Earth.' His latest book is 'These Chains Will Be Broken'. Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. He is currently a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University.