On May 11, 2022, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh - a Palestinian and U.S. citizen - was shot and killed outside Jenin refugee camp in the Occupied West Bank. Extensive investigations by CNN, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and The Washington Post, as well as investigative journalists at Bellingcat, Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem, and the United Nations, all arrived at the same conclusion: Israeli forces were likely responsible for the tragic shooting.
The Take’s two-part series, “Justice for Shireen,” was not produced as a mystery – we wanted to investigate why accountability has stalled. We spoke with Palestinian eye-witnesses who were with Shireen, an Israeli human rights investigator who arrived at the scene only hours later, and a former member of the Israeli military with experience in how these investigations are done. We also heard from the office of a United States senator and family, friends, and colleagues who loved Shireen. Each gives their own account of how Israeli and U.S. investigations fell short in the search for justice.
Throughout the course of our investigation, we found that neither the Israeli nor U.S. investigators ever contacted the witnesses who spoke to The Take. To us, that made the witnesses’ stories in their own words paramount. In part one, Palestinian journalists Shatha Hanaysha and Mujahed Al Sa’adi give a detailed account of the morning Shireen was killed. When they arrived to work, everyone was laughing and joking. Minutes later, they describe bullets being fired at them from the direction of an Israeli military vehicle. Both Shatha and Mujahed have no doubt that the soldiers saw their group of journalists, no doubt they were targeted, and no doubt Israeli forces directed their shots at them, killing their colleague, Shireen.
We also spoke with people who gave us insight into how Israel conducts these types of investigations. Every Israeli military operation is documented, according to one Israeli human rights expert who’s seen hundreds of these kinds of incidents play out. The Israeli military vehicle near where Shireen was shot can carry up to eight soldiers, and each of those soldiers would likely have body camera footage, making it easy for Israeli authorities to pinpoint the shooter – yet the Israeli investigation was inconclusive. One Israeli human rights expert we spoke to described most Israeli military investigations as a complete failure – and it was an Israeli investigation that the U.S. based its own investigation on.
In part two of our series, we returned to the U.S. and heard from Lina Abu Akleh, Shireen's niece, who has been leading the family's push for justice. They’ve been pushing for an independent U.S.- led investigation, and they’ve been disappointed by the Biden administration’s so-called efforts. There are ways the U.S. can conduct an independent investigation; an international law expert told us that the U.S. Department of Justice had recently made it even easier by creating a special task force to investigate potential war crimes, a product of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We tried to get answers from DOJ about whether that unit could investigate Shireen’s killing; they declined to comment.
Members of Congress were not getting answers either. We spoke to Senator Chris Van Hollen’s office and despite repeated attempts, the State Department had not given them answers to their questions about why the U.S. wasn’t conducting a more robust investigation. Shireen Abu Akleh’s case was fortunate enough to receive widespread international attention. Despite the lack of action, she was one of more than 146 Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in 2022 – proving yet again how difficult it is to get justice in cases that implicate the Israeli military, from either the Israeli or the United States governments.
Shortly after our show aired, we did see some movement with Shireen’s case. On September 5, 2022, just days after our episode on the Israeli investigation came out, the Israeli government released its final report on Shireen Abu Akleh's killing. It was likely their soldier's 'unintentional fire' that killed Shireen, the report said. Still, the witnesses were not interviewed, and there was no definitive answer on what happened to Shireen. It is unclear what further investigation was done. Under pressure from our story and others, in November, two months after our series was released, the U.S. Department of Justice also told Israel that the FBI would investigate Shireen's death. The results of that investigation are yet to be seen.