On May 11, 2022, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) shot and killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. She had arrived in the city of Jenin in the West Bank to report on Israeli raids taking place on a Palestinian refugee camp when she was shot behind the ear and killed. Abu Akleh and the other Al-Jazeera correspondents were wearing clearly labeled “PRESS” jackets and helmets when they were fired upon by IDF snipers. Abu Akleh’s colleague, Ali al-Samoudi, was shot in the back by Israeli fire but now remains in stable condition.
Working as a field correspondent for Al Jazeera since 1997, Abu Akleh became one of the first female journalists in the region, leaving behind a celebrated legacy for young female journalists. The funeral procession for Shireen Abu Akleh took place on May 13, 2022, in occupied East Jerusalem where thousands of mourners gathered to march from St. Louis French Hospital. Before Shireen could be laid to rest, Israeli forces attacked the crowd and severely beat the individuals carrying her coffin. After the news of Abu Akleh’s murder was circulated, protests broke out across the globe in solidarity to call for justice and for Israel to be held accountable.
Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh is not an isolated incident. There is a considerable pattern of journalists covering the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories being targeted by the Israeli security state. But how does Israel keep getting away with blatant criminal acts?
Israeli Violence Against Palestinian Journalists
The IDF has consistently used violence as a tactic to suppress any reporting on the Israeli occupation. The murder of Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces, and the subsequent attack on her supporters during her funeral procession demonstrate the further silencing of Palestinians. Her murder also shows just how emboldened Israel feels to carry out the arbitrary killings of Palestinian civilians.
Not one month later, on June 1, 2022, Israeli forces shot and killed another Palestinian journalist, Ghufran Harun Warasneh, age 31, on her commute to her new job at the local news agency, Dream. In a scene eerily similar to that of Abu Akleh’s death, Israeli soldiers prevented medics from attending to Warasneh’s wounds and left her lying on the ground in critical condition before she was pronounced dead at the hospital. Palestinian journalist, Merfat Sadiq explained that this was “part of an escalation against Palestinian reporters in the past year” noting that “women journalists, in particular, are deemed an easier target” with “repeated attacks against female journalists covering the flag march in Jerusalem and in Nablus.”
Shireen Abu Akleh and Ghuran Harun Warasneh are only two of the many Palestinian journalists who have been killed while reporting on the Israeli occupation. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner documents that “[m]ore than 40 Palestinian journalists have reportedly been killed since 2000, with hundreds injured or targeted for violence.” In 2014 specifically, Israel launched one of the most violent attacks on Gaza that Palestinians have experienced to date. That year, seventeen Palestinian journalists were killed by Israeli strikes during the assault on Gaza. The repeated attack on journalists demonstrates the need for an international body to hold Israel accountable for its campaign of violence.
Protections and Rights of Journalists Under International Law
Under international law, journalists are afforded the same rights and protections as civilians in times of war and armed conflict. Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention codifies the rights of prisoners of war, noting that “war correspondents” fall into this category for protection. Article 79 of the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions further strengthens the Third Geneva Convention by establishing “measures of protection for journalists.” As journalists are considered civilians under international law, they cannot be regarded as military personnel and thus cannot be targeted as such.
Following the Second Intifada, Israel instituted a protocol that would initiate an investigation by the Israeli Military Police Criminal Investigation Division (Metzah) in situations where unarmed Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli forces. Initially, the IDF claimed that they were shooting at armed Palestinians when Abu Akleh was shot by flying bullets, and thus a probe was not initiated. The IDF has backtracked on its claim following refutation by Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. The Israeli government has since said it would open a probe if the Palestinian Authority (PA) transfers Abu Akleh’s body and the bullet that killed her to Israel for investigation.
The history of accountability through Israeli state and military investigations is insufficient. While covering protests near the eastern border of the Gaza strip in 2018, Palestinian photographer Yasser Murtaja, age 30, was killed by an Israeli soldier. The military’s investigation did not find the soldier to be responsible for a criminal act. Rather, they inaccurately claimed that Yasser Murtaja was a member of the Islamist group Hamas, in order to justify the killing by the Israeli soldier.
Similarly, that same month, Palestinian journalist Ahmed Abu Hussein, age 24, was shot in the stomach and killed by Israeli forces while reporting on the Great March of Return, an annual protest along the Gazan border where Palestinians demand their right to return to their homeland. An Israeli investigation into Ahmed Abu Hussein’s death was never carried out because the army did not suspect the soldier of any criminal activity. Investigations undertaken by the Israeli military into acts of violence by the IDF against Palestinians rarely result in accountability or justice, leading to a culture of impunity amongst Israeli soldiers.
The International Criminal Court
The Palestinian foreign ministry has called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the death of Shireen Abu Akleh along with other Israeli violations of human rights. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), in conjunction with other organisations and human rights lawyers, has also submitted a formal request for the ICC to launch an investigation into war crimes committed against journalists by the IDF. General Secretary of the IFJ, Anthony Bellanger, has asserted that “[t]he targeting of journalists and media organisations in Palestine violates the right to life and freedom of expression. These crimes must be fully investigated. This systematic targeting must stop.”
Israel has previously asserted that it has not committed any crimes that warrant international intervention. The previous prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, claimed that investigations by the ICC into Israeli activity were “anti-semitic.” Netanyahu’s administration made this claim in an attempt to discredit the authority of the ICC and discourage any international investigation into Israeli activity in the occupied Palestinian Territories. In regard to an investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh, Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, argued that “[a]ny claim that the IDF intentionally harmed journalists or noncombatants is a blatant lie.”
Despite the protestations of Israeli officials, it is a fact that Israel’s occupation and expansion of settlements violate international law. Unfortunately, however, the ICC is limited in its ability to prosecute Israel for its crimes. It only has the authority to investigate cases that involve member states, and Israel has repeatedly refused to join and ratify the Rome Statute, the ICC’s primary document. Whereas Israel has not ratified the Rome Statute, Palestine signed on to the Rome Statute in 2015. However, Israel does not recognize Palestine as a sovereign state, and therefore claims that any Palestinian governing authority lacks the right to be accepted by the ICC as a member.
Although the ICC has limitations, it has ruled in the past that it does have the jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute Israeli war crimes. The acceptance of a Palestinian state to the Rome Statute would enable the ICC to instigate an inquiry into the killing of journalists by the IDF.
The Need for an International Investigation
Israel must be held accountable for the systematic violence that it enacts against Palestinians. If Israel can consistently get away with its crimes, the credibility of these laws will slowly erode as more countries challenge the United Nations and the ICC to persecute them. There needs to be a formal, international investigation into the journalists killed by Israeli forces in order to bring those responsible to justice. The structure of the ICC, which allows for selective persecution of some human rights abuses and not others, needs to be reconsidered to allow for an investigation into Israeli crimes. Former Palestinian minister Mustafa Barghouti explained that they “have been providing information for the past 13 years but investigation has not been started yet. And in less than two months the ICC has sent 42 investigators to Ukraine.”
There is an apparent “double standard” in the ICC’s commitment to investigating war crimes. The ICC has proved to be biased in its investigations of human rights abuses, tending to prosecute those in the Global South over the Global North. Nevertheless, the ICC is intended to serve as “a court of last resort” where national courts have proved ineffective at providing justice. Israel has certainly demonstrated that its internal probes do not result in justice for the Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. The ICC must prioritise Israeli war crimes to the extent that it has investigated those in Ukraine.
While the ICC has structural limitations, the Palestinian Authority has welcomed an investigation by the court. The persecution of Palestinians in the occupied territories is systematic and is the foundation for many Israeli institutions. Therefore, justice and accountability must be obtained through international systems of justice in conjunction with civil society activism. This way, an ICC investigation may initiate structural change to Israeli systems that persecute Palestinian journalists and civilians.
Israel should not be exempt from international scrutiny and legal consequences. If the Israeli state is unwilling to hold its soldiers accountable for their violent actions, global actors have a moral responsibility to step in and investigate their crimes. International bodies of justice cannot continue to watch as Israeli forces kill Palestinian journalists and civilians without consequence.
Edited by Majeed Malhas