Killing of Palestinian journalist threatens to overshadow Biden’s Israel trip
Joe Biden flies to the Middle East on Tuesday for his first trip to the region since entering the White House. Before a visit to Saudi Arabia – one which reawakens the age-old foreign policy dilemma of realpolitik versus human rights – the US president goes to Israel, where he risks becoming entangled in the storm surrounding the fatal shooting of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May.
Biden will be in Israel from Wednesday to Friday on the first stop of his Middle Eastern tour – and is expected to discuss with new Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid the deepening ties between Tel Aviv and certain Arab states, as well as US attempts to revive in some form the nuclear deal discarded by his predecessor Donald Trump.
But regardless of these intentions, Biden’s visit risks being caught up in the anger over the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al-Jazeera journalist who was shot dead on May 11 while covering an Israeli military operation in the West Bank town of Jenin, despite wearing a protective helmet and a bulletproof vest bearing the word “Press”.
The controversy especially risks overshadowing Biden’s visit because the highly respected Abu Akleh – who has become a Palestinian icon since her tragic death – was a US citizen.
Abu Akleh’s family made a direct appeal to Biden in an open letter published on July 8, expressing their “grief, outrage and sense of betrayal concerning your administration’s abject response to the extrajudicial killing of our sister and aunt by Israeli forces”.
US officials concluded in a report last week that a shot fired from Israeli positions likely killed her, although there was “no reason to believe” her shooting was intentional. But the report also said the bullet was “badly damaged”, which prevented a “clear conclusion”.
The late journalist’s brother Anton Abu Akleh wrote in the letter on behalf of her family that the “United States has been skulking toward the erasure of any wrongdoing by Israeli forces” and – addressing Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – “your administration’s engagement has served to whitewash Shireen’s killing and perpetuate impunity”.
The text concludes with demands for the US Justice Department and FBI to “take action” on what the family believes was an “extrajudicial killing”, alongside a demand for Biden to meet her family to discuss the issue in person.
The open letter prompted a sympathetic response from pro-Palestinian activists – including Iyad el-Baghdadi, an influential pro-democracy activist of Palestinian origin, who accused the US of making an exception to equality before the law when it comes to Arab-Americans.
Saudi visit controversy
Even more embarrassingly for the White House, the anger over Abu Akleh’s killing further exposes the Democratic Party’s divide between leftists and moderates.
Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a progressive of Palestinian origin, published a statement on July 8 calling for an independent US investigation into the killing – excoriating the Biden administration and State Department, saying they “admit that Shireen was likely killed by Israeli forces, but extend the benefit of the doubt to a government that has earned none”. More than 80 members of Congress have demanded such an inquiry, including Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
Tlaib concluded her statement by saying that when Biden meets Lapid, he “must obtain the names of the soldiers responsible for killing Shireen, along with that of their commanding officer, so that these individuals can be fully prosecuted for their crimes by the Department of Justice”.
This comes as Biden faces criticism from similar quarters for his visit to Saudi Arabia, a historic US partner the president once promised to make into a “pariah” because of its alleged role in the murder of exiled dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Biden declassified in February 2021 a US intelligence report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “approved” the operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi, then a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist.
Biden defended his decision in an opinion piece for The Washington Post: “My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank,” he wrote.
This article was translated from the original in French.