Shireen Abu Akleh’s family pushes for justice a year after her killing

JERUSALEM One year after the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the FBI agents investigating the shooting have still not spoken to key witnesses in the case, raising questions about the progress of the international probe. 

The death of Abu Akleh, 51, a correspondent with the Al Jazeera news channel and one of the Middle East’s most prominent journalists, sparked global outrage that only intensified after an Israeli police crackdown at her funeral.

Israel initially blamed Palestinian gunmen but later admitted that it was most likely an Israeli soldier who accidentally fired the fatal shot during a raid on a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. No one in the Israeli army has been prosecuted and the military has not announced any disciplinary action.

Advocates have renewed calls for justice after 12 months that have brought little relief for her family or other Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, where escalating violence has raised fears of a broader conflict.

At a Jerusalem church this week, relatives and colleagues gathered to honor Abu Akleh’s memory. A photograph of her in front of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock was placed by the altar as fellow Palestinian journalists wept.

“The past year has been beyond devastating. It’s been very difficult for us to comprehend this loss,” her niece Lina Abu Akleh told NBC News in an interview ahead of Thursday’s anniversary. “We don’t want another day to go by without justice. We want to be able to go to sleep, knowing that the soldier that killed her is held responsible.”

Lina Abu Akleh at a memorial for Shireen Abu Akleh at a church in Beit Hanina in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem on Sunday.Ahmad Gharabli / AFP – Getty Images

Abu Akleh was an American citizen, and her family and some Democrats in Congress say they don’t believe it is credible for Israel’s military to investigate itself — leaving their hopes for accountability largely pinned on the FBI.

But a year after the May 11, 2022, shooting, the FBI has still not contacted Shatha Hanaysha, a Palestinian journalist who was walking alongside Abu Akleh when she was shot and struggled to help in her dying moments. “There is no serious investigation,” Hanaysha said in an interview. “It was just talking in the air to kill the story.”

Walid Al-Omari, Al Jazeera’s bureau chief in the region, also said the FBI had not contacted him or his staff, including the television crew that was with Abu Akleh when she was shot. 

The Biden administration had initially stopped short of a full investigation despite pressure from the United Nations and some Democratic lawmakers.

When that changed, the Israeli government announced in November that it would not cooperate with the FBI investigation.

Israel’s then-defense minister, Benny Gantz, denounced the U.S. decision to investigate the shooting as “a grave mistake” and accused Washington of “interference in Israel’s internal affairs.”

Without Israel’s cooperation, the FBI is unable to speak to key figures from the Israeli military, including senior commanders and troops on the ground during the raid in the West Bank city of Jenin.

The result is that FBI investigators so far appear publicly to not be in contact with Palestinian witnesses who are eager to talk — and unable to contact Israeli witnesses. The FBI declined to comment, in line with its policy of not discussing ongoing investigations.

Israel’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the FBI investigation, saying officials were dealing with the ongoing fighting in Gaza.

Lina Abu Akleh, the niece, said: “We remain hopeful that the FBI will complete a thorough and independent criminal investigation. This is an important step for us toward accountability.”

Journalists and medics wheel the body of Shireen Abu Akleh in a hospital in the West Bank town of Jenin on May 11, 2022.Majdi Mohammed / AP

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has emerged as a leading voice in Congress pushing the U.S. government do more on the Abu Akleh case. “I do not believe that the Biden administration has done everything it can to ensure accountability. I don’t think it’s given this the focus that it should,” he told NBC News.

Van Hollen’s current focus is on gaining congressional access to a report compiled by Army Lt. Gen. Michael R. Fenzel, who is posted in Jerusalem and tasked with coordinating security issues between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Fenzel’s report is an overview of Israeli and Palestinian investigations into Abu Akleh’s death but is not expected to contain original investigative material.

The State Department has said it is determining the appropriate level of classification for the report before releasing it to Congress. Van Hollen said he expected to receive a copy in the coming weeks.

The senator said it was “troubling and disappointing” that Israeli authorities had refused to cooperate with the FBI investigation. “Which is why I will continue to call upon the Biden administration to use all the tools it has available to ensure that we ultimately have accountability and justice is done,” he said.

Speaking at a congressional hearing last week, Yael Lempert, a senior American diplomat and President Joe Biden’s nominee as U.S. ambassador to Jordan, said: “We continue to underscore — at the level of the secretary of state — the importance of accountability in her killing. And we will continue to do so.”

Al Jazeera has also submitted a formal request to the International Criminal Court to investigate Abu Akleh’s killing. The Israeli government said it would not allow its soldiers to be questioned as part of any external investigation. 

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