When she closes her eyes, Lina Abu Akleh is with her aunt. They could be doing anything, but they were probably bingeing a new show on Netflix. It was usually a crime drama or a murder mystery, as long as it wasn’t too gory. Lina didn’t mind what they did together because her aunt had always been her best friend; someone who made her laugh and never missed a graduation or birthday.
But then she blinks, and the moment’s over. A few short months ago, her aunt, Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, was killed while reporting on a military raid in the occupied West Bank. Days later, at her funeral procession, Israeli police beat pallbearers and mourners with batons.
The killing of Abu Akleh, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera and a household name in the Middle East, made headlines and triggered international outrage.
Palestinian officials said the Israel Defense Forces intentionally killed Abu Akleh. The Israeli government, for its part, denies the shooting was deliberate and at one point suggested the journalist was killed by a Palestinian shooter. Later, media outlets, human rights organizations and the Palestinian government investigated the shooting and found the IDF was responsible for the fatal shot.
On July 4, the State Department concluded its own investigation, ultimately finding the Israeli military was “likely responsible” for the shooting. But it said, “ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged, which prevented a clear conclusion.” The State Department’s conclusion: Her death was “the result of tragic circumstances.”
That report did little to assuage the concerns of Lina and other members of the Abu Akleh family, who had hoped to meet with the Biden administration during the president’s trip to the Middle East earlier this month.
In an exclusive statement and interview, they argue the White House has not taken their concerns seriously and has been reluctant to meet with them.
“The administration’s July 4th statement was an affront to justice, and enabled Israel to avoid accountability for Shireen’s murder,” the family wrote in a statement. When asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson referred POLITICO to previous department statements on the investigation and declined further comment.
Abu Akleh’s killing on May 11 came while a group of journalists were reporting on an Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp. In prior weeks, attacks against Israelis and Palestinians had intensified, resulting in the killing of 16 Israelis and more than 30 Palestinians over the same period, according to the New York Times. Following those killings, Israeli raids became a regular feature in Jenin. And on that spring day, Abu Akleh was investigating reports that Palestinians had been killed or injured in the raids when shots rang out. Video footage from the scene shows Abu Akleh lying motionless following the shooting, wearing protective gear marked “PRESS.”
Abu Akeh’s killing was noteworthy, both because of her fame and the circumstances surrounding her shooting. But her case was not unique. This year is looking to be one of the deadliest for journalists, outpacing other killings in the past three or so years. In the first half of 2022 alone, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 44 journalists and media workers were killed while on assignment, including Abu Akleh. Last year, 45 journalists were documented to have been killed by year’s end; 50 were killed in 2020.
American journalists killed while covering conflicts abroad pose a conundrum for the White House, which has to juggle interests in the region while demanding justice for a slain U.S. citizen. In 2002, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and decapitated in Pakistan, the FBI teamed up with Pakistani officials to investigate the murder. (His killers were convicted and later freed by the Pakistani government.)
In 2012, American reporter Marie Colvin was killed while covering the civil war in Syria. Three years ago, a U.S. federal court found Colvin was “specifically targeted because of her profession” by the Bashar al-Assad regime — but her killers were never brought to justice. And in 2018, the Trump White House denied that Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the assassination of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, despite leaked intelligence to the contrary.
With Abu Akleh’s killing, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) wrote Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisting on a more transparent and directly involved U.S. investigation, and demanding answers to 13 pointed questions by the end of this week. New Jersey Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez sent a similar letter calling on the administration to share details on the investigation.
For Lina and the rest of the Abu Akleh family, grief and rage are ever-present. For them, the answers can’t come soon enough. When the Biden administration encouraged the family to come to Washington, they quickly chartered their own flights to the nation’s capital. They want an in-person meeting with both Blinken and President Joe Biden. And they want the Department of Justice and the FBI to launch a new investigation.
After this interview took place, the Abu Akleh family says they were granted a Tuesday afternoon meeting with Blinken.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Joseph Gedeon: Shireen was a U.S. citizen. Are you surprised more hasn’t been done?
Anton Abu Akleh (Shireen’s brother): Yes, we are really disappointed by the U.S. government. We’re hoping for a stronger stand for a U.S. citizen, a prominent journalist killed by an Israeli sniper. We’re disappointed and we hope that there will be a real, independent investigation. A thorough and credible investigation opened by the U.S. government for the killing of Shireen who was also a Palestinian but an American as well. You know, this puts every American in danger if no action is taken and there is no accountability.
Lina Abu Akleh (Shireen’s niece): Most importantly, she’s a human being who was killed in cold blood. Practicing her right to freedom of speech. The very least this administration should have done, and it could still do, is to launch a thorough, credible and, most importantly, a transparent investigation. And they have not done that. What they claimed was an investigation was merely a statement they released on the Fourth of July. It was very vague, lacked transparency and lacked evidence-based answers. So for us, the Biden administration has not taken any meaningful action. It has been very disappointing and deeply upsetting to see so many calls for accountability from us, members of Congress, journalists association(s), civil society, human rights groups, all go on unanswered. So we still push for accountability and for justice, for the administration to take meaningful action.
Gedeon: Biden caught Covid, so I doubt you’ll meet him. But are you meeting other people in the administration or in Congress?
Lina: We’re meeting with Senators Cory Booker, Bob Menendez and Jeff Merkley, who are all on the Foreign Relations Committee, and they signed on to the letter that was led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen calling on the Biden administration to launch a proper investigation into Shireen’s killing. We’re also in the process of scheduling meetings with members of the House. We are hoping to meet with the secretary of State so we can sit together and he can hear from us. We hope that he won’t let us down this time.[After the interview, the family said Blinken would meet with them. They will also meet with Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) among others.]
Gedeon: Do you really think something productive will come out of the meeting?
Anton: Yes, this is why we are coming to Washington and that’s why we will be meeting with lawyers to discuss our options. And we are ready and prepared to pursue what’s best for accountability.
Gedeon: Can you tell me a little bit about Shireen? What was she like growing up?
Anton: Oh, she was an angel. She was a quiet person at home when she was young and hardly made any noise. But imagine the voice she had when she grew up. I recall that she would come when we were having lunch or dinner together and she would tell us about all her experiences, good and bad. Every time she went through a hard time, she would share it with us, some terrible moments that some Palestinians go through when faced with occupation.
Gedeon: And you, Lina?
Lina: She was my aunt, my best friend ever. Growing up she was someone I always looked up to. She was my idol. I wanted to be like Shireen and I wanted to become a journalist. Growing up I realized how difficult her job was and despite how demanding, challenging and difficult it was, she was still always there for me and my siblings and my family. She never missed an occasion. She was there for graduations, for birthdays. She was always there, always supporting us. She was the fun aunt, even though she might look serious on TV.
But she’s very funny. She had a unique sense of humor, very nonchalant. I looked forward to our weekends together. We would always plan on watching Netflix shows to binge. She really enjoyed crime mysteries, but hated anything gory. And, yeah, we learned a lot from her. She was my source of inspiration. She taught me a lot of things not just about politics, but also about music, history and life.
Gedeon: What do you know about her last moments?
Anton: We believe she was intentionally targeted. She was a well-known journalist who was wearing a press vest and helmet. The moment was quiet, right before the Israeli military fired the shot that killed her.
Lina: There were also Palestinian eyewitnesses present. One of her own colleagues was shot and he was injured by the Israeli soldiers present. So all evidence and all eye witnesses clearly show that she was intentionally targeted.
Gedeon: And what about the aftermath? I’m remembering violence at the funeral.
Anton: For no reason. There was no reason, the minute we walked out [Israeli police] started beating on them and attacking everybody with stun grenades.
Lina: It was a barbaric scene. The [police] were armed to the teeth. I still don’t understand what the reason for all that was. I think it was a way for them to silence her, even after her killing, even after she was dead. They were still trying to silence her but I know that her voice was louder and she was still reporting at that moment.
Gedeon: And your home was raided too?
Lina: So, in the morning a few hours after the killing we had the Israeli police come into our house. We thought they were there to carry out, or maybe start with an investigation. But on the contrary, they came in and they asked us to take down our flags. They didn’t want a gathering outside of the house. So for us, it was outrageous. It was frustrating. Not only did they kill her, but they were also putting conditions on how we want to mourn her.
Gedeon: Is the invite to D.C. satisfactory to you then?
Anton: It’s time for direct action. The invitation is appreciated but what we really need is some action on the ground to know that there is a strong U.S. government supporting its citizens everywhere and anywhere. That the greatest country in the world is standing for its citizens, whether in the U.S. or abroad.
Gedeon: Have you heard from other governments?
Anton: Well, we received some condolences and support from others. Similar to the U.S., but others have been better because the Fourth of July statement was really damaging and disgusting. The same as we got from the U.S. government so far.
Gedeon: Like who?
Anton: The Jordanians were always with us. The Qatari government and the Palestinian government.
Gedeon: Jamal Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and journalist, and was also killed. Do you think the United States cares about its journalists abroad?
Lina: I think the U.S. cares about where they’re from and where they’ve been killed. Shireen wasn’t the first journalist killed. The U.S preaches about press freedom: Even a few days before she was killed, on Press Freedom Day, President Biden released a statement talking about the importance of protecting journalists, especially female journalists, who are in conflict zones. So there are clear double standards here. She needs to not be an exception. She was a journalist. She was an American journalist, an American citizen. So the same values should be upheld for Shireen.
Anton: Khashoggi is very much on our minds. We are concerned about press freedom for journalists everywhere. Journalists work to uncover the truth and hold governments accountable. They are incredibly vulnerable… There should be accountability.