How Biden’s Israel approach bets on ‘short’ public attention span
One month after killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, Washington has yet to condemn Israel or back third-party investigation.
Washington, DC – Despite numerous eyewitness testimonies, investigations by media outlets and rights groups, and a Palestinian probe all determining that Israeli forces fatally shot journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the United States has not condemned Israel for the killing.
Instead, since the veteran Al Jazeera reporter was killed on May 11 in the occupied West Bank, top US officials have insisted that Israel can and should conduct an investigation.
But in this US response, many advocates see a familiar script that President Joe Biden’s administration has employed on more than one occasion to address Israeli violations: raise concerns, call for more information, and then move on like they never happened.
“It’s a pretty damn thick file of abuses and murders and violations without any end or acceptable outcome as to the investigation of these crimes,” Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, a think tank, told Al Jazeera.
“So that is continuing unfortunately, and governments on purpose bet on the short attention span of the public.”
On the one-month anniversary of the killing of Abu Akleh on Saturday, Al Jazeera examines the Biden administration’s response to this and other key Israeli violations:
The bombing of Al Jazeera-AP offices in Gaza
During the May 2021 Gaza war, Israeli forces bombed an 11-storey building in Gaza City housing the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera, as well as dozens of residential apartments.
Press freedom advocates immediately condemned the attack and accused Israel of deliberately targeting media outlets. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, also said the targeting of high-rise buildings in Gaza during the conflict violated international law.
But the Biden administration’s initial reaction was to express “concern” and ask Israel for information about the bombing.
Israel had claimed without evidence that it levelled the building because the Palestinian group Hamas had used it as a military intelligence office.
“President Biden and other members of the administration have raised directly our concerns with our Israeli counterparts about the safety and security of journalists operating in Gaza,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said two days after the bombing, adding that Washington also requested “additional details regarding the justification” of the air raid.
A day later, Blinken said he had received the information, but could not comment further.
As it stands, the Biden administration still has not directly denounced the attack or said publicly whether it thinks the bombing of the media offices was justified. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last month that the concerns raised in May of last year “still exist”, but he did not condemn the attack.
After the 2021 Gaza war, Washington added $1bn to the $3.8bn it gives Israel annually.
The blacklisting of Palestinian rights organisations
In a widely condemned move in October 2021, Israel labelled six leading Palestinian human rights and civil society organisations as “terrorist” groups.
An order by the Israeli defence ministry practically outlawed Al-Haq, Defence for Children International-Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and Addameer, over alleged links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) political faction.
While Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called the Israeli decision “appalling and unjust”, the Biden administration’s first response once again was to seek clarification.
There was a brief – and rare – public display of disagreement between the US and Israel when Washington said it had not been notified of the blacklisting in advance. Israeli officials insisted that they had informed their American counterparts of the move.
But the following month, an Israeli delegation visited Washington and Price said the administration had received “detailed information from the Israeli government”.
“We appreciated the consultation. We’re reviewing the information that they provided us,” he said.
In April, UN human rights experts concluded that Israel had failed to present credible evidence to justify the designations, saying they were “disturbed” by the Israeli move. Still, Washington has not said whether blacklisting the NGOs was legitimate, nor has it denounced the decision.
When asked for comment by Al Jazeera this week, a State Department spokesperson said in an email that “the US government has not designated any of the organisations in question, nor have we provided funding to any of these groups”.
The spokesperson added that Washington made clear to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that “independent civil society organisations in the West Bank and in Israel must be able to continue their important work.
“The US government values the monitoring of human rights violations and abuses that independent NGOs undertake in the West Bank and Gaza, in Israel, and elsewhere.”
The killing of US citizen Omar Assad
In January, 78-year-old US citizen Omar Assad suffered a stress-induced heart attack after he was arbitrarily detained, bound, blindfolded and gagged by Israeli forces, and left out at a cold construction site in the occupied West Bank.
The State Department, which often says it has no higher priority than the safety of Americans abroad, called for a “thorough investigation”.
In early February, the Israeli military announced administrative disciplinary action against the battalion involved in Assad’s killing, but no criminal charges, calling the incident a “clear lapse of moral judgment”.
In response, Price said in a statement: “The United States expects a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability in this case, and we welcome receiving additional information on these efforts as soon as possible. We continue to discuss this troubling incident with the Israeli government.”
Since then, the killing of Assad has not been mentioned in readouts describing talks and meetings between Israeli and US officials.
Despite calls from Assad’s family for a US-led investigation into his killing, Washington has so far left it to the Israelis. Nearly six months later, the State Department is still counting on Israel to investigate the case.
“We understand from our Israeli counterparts that the investigation is ongoing,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera this week. “We strongly urge a thorough criminal investigation and full accountability of Mr. Assad’s death, and we continue to closely track this case with the Israeli government.”
The killing of US citizen Shireen Abu Akleh
In May, Israeli forces fatally shot Abu Akleh in what Al Jazeera News Network has called an “assassination”.
The State Department was quick to denounce the killing and label it an “affront to media freedom everywhere”. Price called for a “thorough, comprehensive investigation”, but said the US believed that Israel has the “wherewithal and capabilities” to conduct it.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to avoid assigning responsibility for the incident, all while refusing to carry out its own investigation. Washington is still refusing to back calls for an independent investigation that does not involve Israeli authorities, and has explicitly rejected the involvement of the International Criminal Court in the case.
Even when Israeli police attacked Abu Akleh’s funeral, nearly forcing pallbearers to drop the slain journalist’s coffin, Washington did not condemn that conduct. Blinken said he was “deeply troubled” by the Israeli assault on the funeral procession.
“Every family deserves to be able to lay their loved ones to rest in a dignified and unimpeded manner,” he said in a statement, calling on “all to maintain calm and avoid any actions that could further escalate tensions”.
Raed Jarrar, advocacy director at the rights group Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), said Israel has always enjoyed a “blank cheque policy where it is not held accountable for any of its crimes” by the United States.
“But it is becoming more blatant and more obvious than before because of political pressure and because of media coverage of these events,” Jarrar told Al Jazeera. “The US government is ignoring its own laws to continue to fund apartheid in Israel-Palestine.”