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Inside Israel’s Cover-up & U.S. Response to Murder of Palestinian American Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh

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More than six months since the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed while reporting in the occupied West Bank, “there is still no accountability in what happened,” says journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He is the correspondent on a new Al Jazeera documentary for the program “Fault Lines” that investigates Abu Akleh’s May killing. It draws on videos and eyewitness accounts of Abu Akleh’s killing to establish that Abu Akleh was fatally shot in the head by Israeli forces, a finding supported by numerous other press investigations. The Biden administration also recently opened an FBI probe into her killing, but Israel is refusing to cooperate and has continued to deny responsibility. Abu Akleh, who was one of the most recognizable faces in the Arab world, had worked for Al Jazeera for 25 years and held U.S. citizenship. We play excerpts from the Al Jazeera documentary, “The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh,” and hear from Shireen’s niece Lina Abu Akleh. “We want there to be accountability. We want there to be justice,” she says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show looking at the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces. On May 11th, an Israeli soldier shot her in the head as she was reporting just outside the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. Shireen and other reporters were wearing blue helmets and blue flak jackets clearly emblazoned with the word “press.” Shireen was one of the prominent TV journalists — one of the most prominent TV journalists in the Arab world. She had worked for Al Jazeera for a quarter of a century. She was also a U.S. citizen.

In the six months since her death, no one has been held responsible. After months of pressure, the Biden administration recently opened an FBI investigation into her killing, but Israel is refusing to cooperate in the probe. Israeli officials initially blamed Palestinians for her death, then called evidence “inconclusive,” before once again changing their story in September to say she had been accidentally hit by Israeli troops’ gunfire after they came under fire from Palestinian gunmen. But eyewitness accounts and videos of the area where Shireen Abu Akleh was killed do not show a gun battle. And investigations by Al Jazeera, The New York Times, CNN and other news outlets also challenge the official Israeli version of Shireen’s killing.

The Al Jazeera documentary program Fault Lines has just premiered a remarkable documentary on what happened. It’s called The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. Later in the program, we’ll be joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, the correspondent on the documentary, and Shireen’s niece, Lina Abu Akleh. But first, let’s turn to an excerpt from the documentary featuring Sharif speaking to five eyewitnesses, including the journalists who were with her, Mujahed al-Saadi, Shatha Hanaysha and Ali al-Samoudi. This clip begins with the Al Jazeera cameraman who worked with her for some 30 years, Majdi Bannoura. A warning: This excerpt includes graphic footage.

MAJDI BANNOURA: [translated] We put the helmet on Shireen. I got my camera, and I wore the helmet, and I followed her.

MUJAHED AL-SAADI: [translated] We were all wearing our protective gear, a vest and a helmet.

ALI AL-SAMOUDI: [translated] We stood so that they could see us well and recognize us as journalists.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: This is Ali and Shireen walking by Salim.

ALI AL-SAMOUDI: [translated] When we made sure that there were no confrontations, we started walking slowly, with slow steps.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And about 25 seconds later, here they are walking with Shatha and Mujahid up the street, all in their press jackets, just past the spot where Salim had a view of the military.

ALI AL-SAMOUDI: [translated] Suddenly, a round of bullets was fired. I shouted, “Shireen, they’re shooting at us. We have to get out of here.” Just as I was saying, “We have to get out of here,” my shoulder exploded. I shouted, “Shireen, I was shot,” or I said, “Shireen, they shot me.”

MUJAHED AL-SAADI: [translated] After the first bullet, I was able to jump behind a short wall to take shelter in. Shireen and Shatha reached me to jump and get out of the place, but they couldn’t.

MAJDI BANNOURA: [translated] They started firing at us. I immediately pressed record. I saw Ali was wounded. He walked away. Shireen was behind the tree. I could still see her hiding behind the tree.

SHIREEN ABU AKLEH: [translated] Ali has been wounded!

ALI AL-SAMOUDI: [translated] The last words that Shireen said was, “Ali has been wounded,” “Ali has been wounded.” I mean, these ears, every day, all the time, Shireen’s voice is repeating in my ears.

MAJDI BANNOURA: [translated] I stepped forward again, and they started saying, “Shireen, Shireen.” But they shot at us again.


SHATHA HANAYSHA: [translated] I have a blank spot in my mind. I don’t remember how I got behind the tree. I got behind the tree and turned around to see if Shireen could come to where I was. At that point, I saw Shireen falling to the ground. I didn’t understand that she had been gravely wounded.

UNIDENTIFIED: Shireen! Shireen! [translated] Ambulance!

MAJDI BANNOURA: [translated] I stepped forward and saw Shireen on the ground. I’m holding the camera. I bend down. I want to walk, to walk toward Shireen.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Stay! Stay! Stay where you are! Don’t move! Mujahed, don’t move!

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Who was shot?

UNIDENTIFIED: Shireen! Shireen!

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Ambulance!

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Ambulance!

SHATHA HANAYSHA: [translated] The whole time I wanted to shake her, to touch her, to move her, but I was also filled with fear because the tree was what was protecting us, and if I moved her, maybe she would be wounded again. I remember when I saw the blood on the ground, when the blood started coming out. That’s when I realized she had taken a bullet to the head. And I started shouting, “It’s her head! Her head!”

SALIM AWAD: [translated] Every time she moved, there was shooting. I tried to approach, and I couldn’t.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Pull her!

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: A young man named Sharif jumped over the wall to try and help. But he was also fired at.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. The Al Jazeera documentary program Fault Lines just aired this. Shireen Abu Akleh worked for Al Jazeera for a quarter of a century.

We’re joined now by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, the correspondent on the documentary.

Sharif, this is a powerful piece, because you have put together for the first time all of these eyewitness accounts. In a moment, we’re going to get the response of the United States. Shireen Abu Akleh is a Palestinian American journalist. But I’m wondering if you can talk about the significance. This is the group of journalists, colleagues, producers, filmmakers that she was with outside the Jenin refugee camp. And talk about what it means to hear their description now.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, Amy. I think what’s very important to understand about this case, first of all, this is the kind of violence that Palestinians are subject to on a daily basis. Just over the past week, we’ve seen something like nine Palestinians killed in various Israeli raids in the West Bank.

What is very particular about this case is, first of all, this is one of the most prominent journalists in the Arab world. She’s a household name across the region. And a lot of what happened is caught on camera. We have all of this footage, both from a bystander who started a TikTok video in the minutes leading up to the killing, and we see the Al Jazeera cameraman himself filming what happened; and the testimony, all this eyewitness testimony from other journalists and people who were there, as well; and the fact that Shireen is also a U.S. citizen. And with all of this, there is still no accountability in what happened.

And so, what we can see, and what the journalists and the eyewitnesses very vividly describe, is that they arrived at the scene near the Al-Awdah roundabout, which is just outside the entrance to the Jenin refugee camp. There had been an Israeli raid early that morning. Israeli soldiers had gone in to do an arrest. And then they had parked in a convoy of between five to seven vehicles up a street. As you can see in the video, when Shireen arrives and the other journalists arrive, the situation is completely calm. There is no gunfire whatsoever. You can see people joking as they’re getting ready. They’ve clearly put on all their protective gear, their vests, their helmets. They’re clearly identified with “press.” Some of the journalists stand facing the Israeli convoy for several minutes so the soldiers could see them and see that they are journalists.

And then, at some point they begin very slowly walking up the middle of the street. And very quickly, we hear a burst of gunfire, of six shots. The producer, Ali al-Samoudi, is hit in the shoulder, and he starts running back. One journalist jumps over a wall. And Shireen and Shatha Hanaysha are trying to run back, as well. Eight seconds later, there’s another burst of gunfire, and one of these bullets — about seven shots were fired. One of these bullets hit Shireen in the head. And you have to understand that she’s wearing full body armor and a helmet. There’s only a very small area that is exposed, and that’s where the bullet entered, through the bottom of her neck, and went into her head. And then we see again, as people are trying to rescue Shireen and rescue Shatha, who was just next to her, as soon as anyone is in kind of line of sight, they are fired on again. And we hear another three shots.

So, you know, this wasn’t kind of like errant gunfire from the Israeli convoy; this was repeated targeting. And the group Forensic Analysis, along with the Palestinian rights organization Al-Haq, did a remarkable investigation, and they also showed the pattern of the shots, as well. The convoy was about 200 meters from where Shireen was. It shows a remarkable accuracy of all of these shots. They’re very tightly grouped together. They’re all shots that are above the shoulder and around the head, so these are kill shots. And they were repeatedly targeting what was very obvious. And they also reconstruct what the marksman would have seen, given the scope that the Israeli military uses and what this elite unit that was stationed there uses. And you can see, Amy, that there was — they were clearly wearing kind of their press outfits. And I stood at that spot and looked from where the Israeli convoy was and where Shireen was killed, and it’s kind of very clear.

So, given all of this very compelling evidence, the fact that there’s been no accountability whatsoever is really quite shocking. Israel, in the beginning, first said that — it released a video that day saying a Palestinian gunman killed her, and they released this video of a Palestinian militant shooting. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem went that day to debunk that claim, and we also went to that spot, and it’s just a preposterous claim. The bullets — we walked where the bullets — where the gunman was firing from and where Shireen was and where the Israeli convoy was. And it’s this series of lefts and rights through alleyways and buildings. It’s an impossible shot. There’s no clear line of sight whatsoever.

So, then the Israelis changed their story, and they said there’s not enough evidence to understand what happened. And then, after a lot of pressure, in September they said — they finally said an Israeli soldier may have accidentally killed her because — after she was caught in crossfire. Again, there’s no credibility whatsoever to this claim of crossfire. Both the video evidence and all the eyewitness testimony shows that the situation was completely calm and there was no crossfire whatsoever.

And even with all this evidence, the United States, the Biden administration, has accepted the Israeli narrative, has been complicit in this whitewash. And only recently, after a lot of pressure, did the FBI finally admit — or, finally decide to open an investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in a moment, we’re going to go to the officials, the U.S. officials, who you spoke to about investigating this. I mean, one of the powerful parts of this documentary is you go back to all the people we just heard described, her fellow and sister journalists around her. And you ask them, “Were you questioned by the U.S. government?” Talk about this. “Were you questioned for an investigation?” She’s an American.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. So, you know, the United States put out its report in July. This was something conducted by the U.S. security coordinator, which is a fact-finding mission on the ground in Palestine. And that report was not its own investigation. The U.S. did not do an investigation. What it did was it summarized the Israeli investigation and the Palestinian Authority investigation and did a ballistics report, which was ultimately inconclusive. So, the U.S. security report very heavily relies on the Israeli investigation, and there’s just a very short statement that was put out by the State Department that says that an Israeli soldier likely killed Shireen but that there was no intentionality whatsoever. They don’t explain how they came up with this conclusion of intentionality. They don’t back up the claim whatsoever.

And they didn’t conduct any of their own investigation, so none of the eyewitnesses are questioned. This is just very basic protocols to follow when you’re trying to investigate what happened. There are several people who were with Shireen, right next to her when she was shot. These are journalists, as well. And you don’t interview them. None of them were questioned by either Israeli officials or U.S. officials.

And for the State Department and the Biden administration to just accept this narrative by the Israelis in the killing of an American citizen is — it really goes to show how far they’re willing to go and bend over backwards to assist Israel in this kind of impunity. It’s really — it’s not very comprehensible why they are doing this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go back to your documentary, The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, that just premiered on Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines. This clip begins with Hagai El-Ad. He is the executive director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, talking about Israel’s investigations in the killing. And then it goes on to a number of U.S. officials you sat down with, Sharif.

HAGAI EL-AD: These are shame investigations, but a lot of resources are invested in them by the Israeli military. So, why are they going through all these motions, right? It’s deliberate. You arrive at impunity, but you don’t pay a price in the public arena, because, “Hey, we’re investigating.” And legally speaking, these sham investigations are a legal Iron Dome to protect Israeli soldiers from potential international legal consequences. They are trying to block the path for international jurisdiction, and they’re trying to win the public relations game.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The United States seems to be relying heavily on the Israeli investigation of the killing. Do you think that’s adequate?

HAGAI EL-AD: It’s not just not adequate, it’s outrageous. Like, this isn’t happening in a vacuum. There are hundreds of other case files. This is well-established fact that Israel does not conduct investigations that are meant to arrive at holding people accountable.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For Shireen’s family, the U.S. backing of the Israeli investigation was particularly upsetting, especially after President Biden declined to meet with them in both Palestine and Washington.

ANTON ABU AKLEH: We had really expected lots more from the U.S. government, but we’re not getting anything, nothing except sweet talking and condolences, something anyone can do.

LINA ABU AKLEH: He preaches about press freedom, protection of journalists, but the way he did not hold the same values when Shireen was killed was very, very upsetting. And it just showed the double standards when a Palestinian American journalist is killed.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: This is an American citizen. We have a duty to pursue the facts wherever they lead, as Secretary Blinken himself said.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Senator Chris Van Hollen has led a group of his colleagues in pushing the Biden administration to investigate Shireen’s killing.

Why do you think the State Department hasn’t conducted an independent investigation yet?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Their new view — not the original words of the secretary — is that they will take these other investigations that have been completed. The problem, the challenge is they have reached very different conclusions. You have, first of all, the IDF report justifies the shooting and the shooting death based on claims that there was a crossfire. But you also have independent analyses that have been done that clearly dispute that claim. And the IDF has not put the facts on the table that show how it reached that conclusion. They have not made public their analysis.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: This was a U.S. citizen. Do you believe the administration has upheld their duty?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: I do not. I think we have a duty to do what the secretary of state originally said. They appear to have backed off. But I believe, and many of my colleagues believe, that we’ve got to get to the bottom of this, and it cannot be swept under the rug.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The State Department declined to make Secretary of State Blinken available to speak with us. And in an interview, a department spokesperson continually deferred to the U.S. security coordinator’s report and the Israeli investigation.

NED PRICE: U.S. security coordinator on the ground worked with both Palestinians and Israelis, in some cases physically bridging those two investigations, to prepare his own set of findings.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Let me ask you about the central claim in the Israeli military’s report, that if an Israeli soldier killed her, it was because Shireen was caught in an exchange of fire by Palestinian gunmen in the area. That claim is completely disputed by eyewitness testimony and video footage from that area in the minutes leading up to and during the shooting. Doesn’t that discrepancy concern you?

NED PRICE: Of course we are concerned when there are allegations that a civilian was intentionally targeted. What the Israelis found and what our security coordinator found was that there appears to have been no intentionality. Our security coordinator found no reason to believe that Shireen Abu Akleh was intentionally targeted by —

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Have you seen the footage?

NED PRICE: — by Israeli — of course. And I have looked at everything that is available in the public domain.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Clearly, they have not done what they said themselves they were going to do. The secretary of state said there would be an independent investigation. There has not been an independent investigation. Backing off sends the wrong message around the world.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Beyond the State Department, we wanted to ask the White House about Shireen.

Thank you. I have a question on the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The U.S. security coordinator’s report was not an investigation. It was based on the Israeli investigation, the PA’s investigation. There was a ballistics analysis done that was inconclusive. None of the key eyewitnesses have even been interviewed. Why has the U.S. not conducted an independent investigation into the killing of an American citizen?

JOHN KIRBY: We said from the very beginning that we wanted it fully transparently investigated. We recognize that the Israelis did conduct a thorough investigation.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Do you characterize it as a thorough investigation when no key eyewitnesses have been interviewed, and there’s clear video evidence that contradicts the central claim in the killing of a U.S. citizen?

JOHN KIRBY: Look, again, we continue to mourn with the family. And this obviously should not have happened. But I’m not going to speak anymore about the investigation. That’s been completed.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Just two weeks after this, and over six months after Shireen was killed, news broke that the FBI, independent of the White House, would open an investigation into the killing. The Israeli government made clear they would not cooperate. Given that and the U.S. administration’s statements since the killing, it’s unclear how thorough and transparent the investigation will truly be.

HAGAI EL-AD: I think it could be helpful if it’s genuine, but I think the U.S. has lost so much credibility so far in this regard. We’re not in an unusual point in time. The U.S. government is now on record expressing its trust and confidence in the so-called Israeli investigation. So, we’re not at a clean slate in this regard. Like, we’re deep into this territory in which the U.S. has aligned itself with the Israeli narrative on this killing.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, which just premiered on the Al Jazeera documentary program Fault Lines. To see the full documentary on Al Jazeera’s English YouTube page, we will link to it at democracynow.org. Sharif Abdel Kouddous is with us, the correspondent on this documentary, as well as Lina Abu Akleh, the niece of Shireen Abu Akleh.

And we welcome you both. Sharif, we watched you question one official after another, Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson, Admiral John Kirby of the National Security Council now. You even tried to question President Biden. And since this time, the FBI has announced it’s opening an investigation. Can you talk about what the U.S. is saying now?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, you know, the FBI has announced it’s opening an investigation. We have to understand this is coming after a lot of pressure — the family has not given up on pushing for accountability — the amount of evidence that is clear. And also, we’re seeing in Congress, you know, nearly half of the Democratic members of the Senate have called into question — they wrote a letter calling into question Israel’s claims that Shireen was accidentally shot by an Israeli soldier, and, you know, suggesting that she may have been targeted as a journalist. So, we have pressure from Congress, from the family, all this video evidence, media pressure, as well from human rights organizations, and finally this announcement that the FBI is going to open an investigation.

I think, as we heard from the executive director of B’Tselem, the U.S. is not starting from a neutral point. They have already expressed their support for the Israeli narrative. We’ll have to see what the FBI investigation comes up with. Israel has made very clear that it’s not going to cooperate in any way whatsoever. The soldiers will not be available to be interviewed. They will not release the bodycam footage that Israeli soldiers almost always are wearing. So, we’ll have to see how transparent, as well, the FBI makes this investigation, whether accountability comes forward. But certainly, it’s a positive step, but it has only come after months and months of pressure and compelling evidence that is very difficult to contradict.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to talk about where some of that pressure is coming from. Lina Abu Akleh is with us from San Francisco. Lina is the niece of Shireen Abu Akleh. Lina, you, your father Tony, your whole family has been pushing extremely hard for this investigation. Your aunt, Shireen, is an American citizen. President Biden went to Israel and the West Bank. Talk about who you have gotten to see. You met with Antony Blinken? Is that right? Antony Blinken? Have you met with President Biden? What do you feel about the FBI announcing, after six months, they will open an investigation?

LINA ABU AKLEH: Yeah, thank you, Amy. We met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in July. We were hoping to have met with President Biden, especially during his visit to the region. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, even though he was 10 minutes away from where Shireen was born and raised. We still hope that we will get to meet him. It’s really important that he hears directly from our family, and for us to see and to hear from their end how they’re pursuing all their efforts towards accountability.

We were actually very encouraged by the news that the FBI will be investigating. This is something we’ve been calling on from day one, since Shireen was a U.S. citizen, and it’s the duty of the United States to investigate any crime carried out by a foreign army outside against a U.S. citizen. And we stand ready to support the U.S. in conducting this independent and thorough investigation, following all the evidence, where it leads up and down the chain of command. And we’ve seen how the Israeli army is unable and unwilling to investigate themselves. That’s why it’s really important for the FBI to be investigating. And we also hope that the United States, the FBI will employ all tools necessary to get the answers that we’ve been asking regarding the killing of Shireen, but also to lead to accountability and justice. That’s what we want. We want there to be accountability. We want there to be justice.

And during our trip to D.C. in July, we met with various members of Congress and representatives who have been calling out for an investigation, who have been supporting us and constantly pushing towards an independent investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: On November 15th, the U.S. House, Representative André Carson, one of the few Muslim members of Congress, along with 21 other House Democrats, introduced the Justice for Shireen Act, separate from the FBI’s investigation right now. Also, you have the FBI not saying specifically how they’re going to investigate this, and you have the outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz saying, quote, that the IDF “will not cooperate with an external investigation, and will not enable intervention to internal investigations.” Your response to this, as Israel puts together — at this point, is forming the most right-wing government in its history?

LINA ABU AKLEH: Yeah. Well, from the very beginning, we saw how Israel lied and distorted the truth, and they’ve been unwilling to investigate. And they have a track record of escaping guilt and accountability, so we weren’t expecting anything from them. And that should be obvious to anyone.

But at the end of the day, we still hope that all parties will cooperate in this investigation. But we’ve seen the overwhelming evidence that’s already been gathered by all the reputable news outlets, and especially this documentary, the AJ Fault Lines documentary, that’s so powerful but very painful and difficult to watch. But it’s so important for everyone to see that the evidence is there. The eyewitnesses are — they show the eyewitness testimonies.

So, I’m sure that regardless of Israel’s cooperation, the U.S. will still follow through and carry out a thorough investigation. And we are hopeful that this would lead to accountability. And regardless of any new government in Israel, we still hope that this investigation carries through.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lina Abu Akleh, we want to thank you for being with us, the niece of Shireen Abu Akleh, one of the most famous Arab journalists in the world, a Palestinian American journalist. And Sharif Abdel Kouddous, the correspondent on this Fault Lines piece, The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. We’re going to link to it at democracynow.org, the YouTube version of the documentary. But I want to end with Shireen Abu Akleh in her own words, an excerpt from The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.

SHIREEN ABU AKLEH: [translated] Sometimes the Israeli army doesn’t want you there, so they target you, even if they later say it was an accident. They might say, “We saw some young men around you.” So they target you on purpose, as a way of scaring you off because they don’t want you there.

AMY GOODMAN: The words of Shireen Abu Akleh.

Coming up, Angela Davis. When high school students in Rockland County, New York, invited the renowned professor to speak, her event got shut down — not once but twice. But the students persevered, and last night hundreds of people packed into a Nyack church. Stay with us.

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