US Congressional Democrats are calling on the White House to conduct and release the findings of a full investigation into the shooting death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May.
An investigator from the research group Forensic Architecture shared with The World a computer reconstruction, built by its team, of the spot in the West Bank where Abu Akleh was shot. It determined that she was shot by an Israeli marksman and that she was clearly identifiable as a journalist.
Earlier this month, the Israeli military announced long-awaited results of its investigation into the deadly shooting of Abu Akleh, saying there was a “high probability” an Israeli soldier had mistakenly killed her during a raid in the occupied West Bank last May.
But the military provided no evidence to support its claim that a fierce gunbattle was under way at the time that Abu Akleh was shot.
Now, the US Congress is pushing for further accountability. Democrats Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Chris Van Hollen and others have reached out to the State Department with a series of questions about the case.
Sen. Van Hollen joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss why a US-led independent invesigation into the case matters.
Marco Werman: I'd like to begin with what's known as the Leahy Laws, named after Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. The law basically says the US government will not provide assistance to foreign security forces where there is a credible implication of gross violations of human rights. Does the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh activate the Leahy Laws?
Sen. Chris Van Hollen: Well, that depends on all the facts. And we've been trying to get the facts so that we can have accountability in this case. The most recent analysis that you are reporting on is consistent with analysis done by The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post. And it's why we keep pushing the Biden administration to conduct an independent analysis of their own, reach their own conclusions, about what happened so that we can consider the next steps for accountability. But getting the facts is a prerequisite to applying any of those laws.
What has been the response from the White House to your request?
Well, so far, the White House and the State Department have not been responsive. As Sen. Leahy, myself and others wrote to Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken on July 12, with a series of questions trying to get the facts in this case. We have yet to get a response. And it's my view that the Biden administration has a duty to get to the bottom of the killing of an American citizen and a journalist — where the Biden administration says a high priority is to protect journalists in conflict zones — that we have to pursue the facts wherever they lead us. That's what Secretary Blinken himself said some time ago, and we're going to continue to hold the administration to that.
You and Sen. Leahy have authored an amendment that would force the State Department to issue a report on Shireen Abu Akleh's killing. If the killing were found to be intentional, what would that mean for lawmakers?
Well, again, I just don't want to jump to the conclusions of a report. This is why we keep pushing for the facts. And we are totally not satisfied at all with what the Biden administration has provided. As you probably know, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) issued a report claiming that the shooting was justified because there was an ongoing exchange of fire at that time between IDF forces and Palestinian militants. But this most recent evidence, along with the earlier evidence from independent news sources — again, like The New York Times, Washington Post and others — indicates that there was no such exchange of fire. And this is the key issue we have to resolve. And the Biden administration has a duty to work with us to get the facts.
So, given all the sources you have, what other facts are lawmakers looking for?
Well, what we're looking for is for the Biden administration to conduct this independent analysis, because they ultimately are the ones that have to make the determination under US law. So, this is why getting the facts is so important, and we're going to continue to push to do that. I also included an amendment in the State Department authorization bill that was passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the other day to require the administration to provide us with a copy of a report done by the United States security coordinator on the ground there. They have not provided that to us yet, despite the fact we asked for it back in July.
If a State Department report showed her killing as intentional, would you press to cut funding to Israel?
Well, again, I don't want to get ahead of the facts. Clearly, if that were the case, that would trigger the Leahy Laws. Sen. Leahy himself made that statement on the floor of the Senate. But that, obviously, is contingent on the finding of the facts. And this is why it's important that the administration not sweep this under the rug, and we're going to hold their feet to the fire so that they can't do that.
Senator, with some exceptions, there has long been an overarching belief in Congress that the US bond with Israel is unbreakable. Are we at a moment where that's being questioned?
I think it is unbreakable. I think we have a very strong partnership with Israel, which is why it is especially disappointing in this case that we can't get more facts and cooperation. Secretary Blinken asked the IDF to review their rules of engagement after this case. In other words, review when fire is appropriate and when it's not. He pressed that for a little while, but then he dropped that request when he got some pushback. So, we have a close partnership. So, this is a moment where we want the Israeli government to help us get to the bottom of the shooting death of an American citizen and a journalist. And we need the Biden administration to be very focused on getting the facts. Secretary Blinken, himself, originally called for an independent investigation. Those were his words. We said, "Yes, we agree." He's backed off. We haven't. We need the Biden administration to do its duty in this case of a killing of an American citizen and journalist.
World leaders and human rights groups have pointed to what they see as a pattern of human rights violations over the years that Israel is responsible for. Why is the death of this Palestinian American journalist different for Senate Democrats?
Well, all violations of human rights, wherever they happen in the world, are important. What we have here is a situation where you do have an American citizen — a Palestinian American. You also have a journalist. And the Biden administration has repeatedly said that protecting journalists in conflict areas is one of their top priorities. So, if that's true, if protecting journalists is a top priority and protecting American citizens is a top priority, this is a clear case where the Biden administration has to show that it means what it says.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.