Washington, DC – United States Senator Patrick Leahy, a senior Democrat, has raised a series of questions about the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh in a statement that also suggested that US aid to Israel could be restricted to ensure accountability.
A US law that carries Leahy’s name prohibits military aid to countries that commit human rights violations. On Thursday, the veteran senator said it “must be” applied to Israel if Abu Akleh, who was Palestinian American, was killed intentionally.
“Whether her killing was intentional, reckless, or a tragic mistake, there must be accountability,” Leahy said in the statement. “And if it was intentional, and if no one is held accountable, then the Leahy Law must be applied.”
Israel, which rights groups accuse of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians, receives $3.8bn in US security assistance annually.
Abu Akleh was fatally shot by Israeli forces during a raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on May 11. Her killing spurred worldwide condemnation and demands for justice.
The Biden administration has rejected calls for an independent investigation, insisting instead that Israel is able to investigate allegations of misconduct by its troops. But on July 4, the State Department dismissed the killing of Abu Akleh as unintentional — a stance criticised by Leahy.
“To say that fatally shooting an unarmed person, and in this case one with PRESS written in bold letters on her clothing, was not intentional, without providing any evidence to support that conclusion, calls into question the State Department’s commitment to an independent, credible investigation and to ‘follow the facts‘,” the senator said on Thursday.
Earlier this month, the Israeli government ruled out conducting a criminal investigation into the incident after releasing a public assessment stating that there is a “high possibility” that one of its soldiers shot Abu Akleh but that it was accidental.
Video footage, several witnesses and multiple investigations by independent media outlets show that there were no armed Palestinians in the area where Abu Akleh and other journalists were standing before Israeli soldiers started firing at them.
After calling for “accountability” for months and saying the journalist’s killers should be prosecuted, the Biden administration changed its tone after the Israeli statement this month.
Last week, US officials only called on Israel to review its rules of engagement to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future — a demand that was later publicly rejected by Israeli leaders.
In his statement on Thursday, Leahy questioned the approach of both Israel and the US to the incident. “If the soldier who fired the fatal shot did not intend to kill Ms. Abu Akleh, what did he intend?” the senator said.
“If, as the Israeli authorities appear to be saying, the soldier missed who he was aiming at and hit Ms. Abu Akleh by mistake, who was he aiming at? What evidence is there, if any, that anyone in the immediate vicinity of where Ms. Abu Akleh was shot was firing at the [Israeli] soldier who killed her?”
Leahy also asked if Israeli soldiers who attacked Abu Akleh’s funeral and beat the mourners carrying her coffin had been reprimanded.
“An independent, credible investigation – meaning not by the [Israeli army] and not by the PA – but with their full cooperation, must be conducted and the findings made public,” he said.
Leahy’s statement comes a day after the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a legislative amendment that would require the Biden administration to share with legislators the full State Department report that led to its July 4 statement.
Senator Chris Van Hollen, who has been one of the most outspoken politicians in demanding an independent investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing, has led that effort.
“I will continue pressing for full accountability and transparency around the death of Shireen – anything less is unacceptable,” Van Hollen said in a statement on Wednesday.