Jul 7, 2022

The death of Shireen Abu Akleh.

The death of Shireen Abu Akleh.

Plus, a question about voter ID laws.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. Plus, a question about voter ID laws.

Protestors carry photo of Shireen Abu-Akleh / Author: שי קנדלר
Protestors carry photo of Shireen Abu Akleh / Author: שי קנדלר

Tomorrow.

In tomorrow's subscribers-only edition, I'm going to be making the case that we should not hand down a death sentence to the Buffalo, Uvalde and Highland Park mass shooters. This is one of the most challenging pieces I've ever written, on a topic that I have a great deal of interest in, and I'm very curious to see what Tangle readers think about it. You can subscribe here.


Quick hits.

  1. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced he was resigning today, but plans to remain as PM until a successor is named. (The resignation)
  2. WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug possession charges in Russia today. She faces up to 10 years in prison. (The plea)
  3. The Highland Park gunman confessed to the shooting and said he considered another attack in Madison, Wisconsin. (The confession)
  4. Former White House counsel Pat Cippollone said he will testify in a closed session before the House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack. (The testimony)
  5. The FDA temporarily suspended its new rule to ban Juul from selling its signature vaping products while the regulation is under review. (The appeal)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Shireen Abu Akleh. The Palestinian-American journalist was killed on May 11, 2022, as Israeli soldiers conducted a raid in the West Bank city of Jenin. The raid’s purpose was to arrest a member of the militant group Hamas, which had claimed responsibility for an attack against Israelis. Jenin has been the center of the Israeli military's focus since a wave of violence began in The West Bank in March. The area is also home to a holy site where Muslim and Jewish worshippers (as well as Israeli police) regularly come to blows.

Abu Akleh wrote for Al-Jazeera, where she was a household name in the Arab world and a well-known reporter in America for her coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many described her as “the voice of Palestinian suffering” upon her death. In the immediate aftermath of the killing, Israel attempted to pin the blame on Palestinian gunmen by releasing a video of them shooting indiscriminately inside Jenin. But footage that was released in response showed Abu Akleh was not killed in the area where that firing took place.

In the weeks after her death, the Palestinian Authority said an investigation concluded Abu Akleh was intentionally targeted and killed by Israeli soldiers. Then, last month, the United Nations Human Rights Office said it had determined Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli military and not by fire from Palestinians. The U.N. investigators said she was clearly identifiable as a journalist, with a helmet and blue press flak jacket on, and had been standing among other reporters when she was killed.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department said gunfire from Israeli military positions was likely responsible for her death, though they added that there was no evidence the killing was deliberate. They also said the bullet was so badly damaged that a conclusive forensic audit could not be completed.

"The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad," the State Department said in a statement.

Abu Akleh's death has sparked outrage across the Arab world and divided commentators here in America. The United States' claim that the killing was unintentional and could not be confirmed forensically also caused anger, as many Palestinians viewed it as a sign no charges would be brought against any Israeli soldier.

The conclusions "provided the occupying state with a safe way of evading responsibility for killing Abu Akleh, using flimsy and feeble pretexts,” the Palestinian Authority’s ministry for foreign affairs said.

The U.S. assessment came just before President Biden visits Israel and the West Bank this week for the first time as president. He is not expected to make any major policy statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Today, we're going to examine some perspectives about the killing, and then I'll offer my take. Because this story does not fall into the typical left-right dichotomy, and because it is an international piece, we are going to experiment with a slightly different format.


On the one hand...

  • Many note that several investigations now incriminate Israeli forces, yet they are still avoiding responsibility.
  • Others say Abu Akleh was killed intentionally, and that the U.S. has only muddied the waters.
  • Some argue that Israel should invite a full accounting of what happened, for its own good.

In The Palestinian Chronicle, Iqbal Jassat accused America of whitewashing Shireen Abu Akleh's death.

"It was a 'silly and stupid' move to hand over the bullet that killed Shireen Abu Akleh to the Americans, is the view of many Palestinians, who have criticized the Palestinian Authority (PA) for doing so," Jassat wrote. "None are surprised therefore to find that the U.S. investigators, who strangely opted to remain anonymous, have arrived at a vague conclusion, letting the Israeli killers off the hook. Exactly what many feared when it was discovered that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas buckled under U.S. pressure to 'gift' Israel by passing the bullet over the apartheid regime’s funder, protector and military supplier. Despite [being] vehemently opposed to Israel laying hands on the bullet, the PA yet again succumbed to American blackmail. In so doing it has shot itself in the foot and dangerously undermined the overriding need to hold Israel accountable.

"It is utterly foolish and naive for the PA to have believed that granting America the right to act as judge, jury and prosecutor, would result in a fair and impartial probe," Jassat wrote. "And to have proceeded without the approval of the Abu Akleh family is unforgivable. In any event, the UN Human Rights Office said its review of the killing shows that the shots that killed Shireen Abu Akleh and injured her colleague came from Israeli forces – not Palestinians. And in contrast to the U.S. position, it claimed to have found no information suggesting that there was activity by armed Palestinians in the immediate vicinity of the journalists. And unlike the sloppy U.S. probe, the UN reached its determination after gathering information from the Israeli military and the Palestinian attorney general. Its staff also visited the scene where Abu Akleh was shot, spoke to witnesses and experts and analyzed the video and other records."

In The Forward, Rob Eshman said the U.S. should not be done looking into Abu Akleh's death.

"To their credit, the Israelis have not shut the door on prosecuting any soldier involved in the death. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, Israeli Army’s advocate general, said she is awaiting the findings of the army’s internal investigation, which is ongoing," Eshman said. "But if past is prologue, there is little chance that Israel will continue to investigate or prosecute those involved in Abu Akleh’s death without external pressure. Criminal investigations against IDF soldiers accused of civilian deaths have continuously declined in recent years, according to the Israeli accountability group Yesh Din, and 2% of ‘complaints made by Palestinians after being harmed by Israeli soldiers in 2019–2020 resulted in the prosecution of suspects.’

"I wish I could somehow convey to these lovers of Israel that their response is doing the country they love no favors," he wrote. "The truth needs to come to light for Israel’s sake. If an investigation roots out bad actors among IDF soldiers, that’s good for Israel. If a report reduces the likelihood another journalist will die during an Israeli operation, that’s good for Israel. If a full and transparent report exonerates the IDF, that’s good for Israel. It’s not wrong for the U.S. to continue to hold Israel to account for how thoroughly and how transparently it investigates the death of Abu Akleh, and it’s certainly not antisemitic. What it is, is good for Israel."

In Al-Jazeera, Jalal Abukhater wrote about the hope for justice.

"None of us expects the Israeli forces who murdered Shireen to admit to their crime or seek atonement," Abukhater said. "None of us is naive enough to believe her killers – not only those who pulled the trigger, but also those who created the conditions for her assassination – will be held to account for what they did to her, and the Palestinian people. But the outpouring of love and solidarity Shireen’s murder triggered in Palestine still gives me hope that despite all the brutality inflicted on us by the Israeli occupation, Palestinians are moving together towards building a better future and finding freedom.

"As expected, Israel first lied about what happened in Jenin on the morning of May 11, 2022, and then refused even to investigate what we all know was a cold-blooded assassination of a journalist on duty, citing 'political complexities.' We had testimonies by several Palestinian journalists and witnesses, plenty of video evidence, and lots of experts weighing in," Abukhater said. "They all agreed that it was Israeli fire that killed Shireen. CNN went even further and after analysing all the available evidence, all the possible scenarios, all the bullet markings left at the scene, concluded that Shireen was killed in 'a targeted attack' by Israeli forces. But no evidence in the world was enough to stop the Israeli propaganda machine. Israel continued with its campaign to muddy the waters and gaslight Palestinians. It kept claiming that it is not possible to know what happened, that even if it was an Israeli bullet that killed Shireen, it was somehow the fault of Palestinians."


On the other hand...

  • Some argue there is still no evidence the killing was intentional, and it is not definitive an Israeli soldier was behind Abu Akleh's death.
  • Others argue the obsession with her death is a product of anti-Semitism and contend the U.S. investigation points to lots of ambiguity about what happened.
  • Many contend that, unlike many Arab nations, Israel is a champion of free press and would never target a journalist.

Israel's prime minister Yair Lapid said "Israel never targets journalists."

"Less than two hours after the death on May 11 of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, I contacted Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian minister responsible for cooperation with Israel. We all agree that something awful happened, I told him. I proposed that we hold a joint investigation into her death. The Palestinians refused. We may never know exactly what caused her death, but the important thing is that, like 511 other journalists who were killed in recent years around the world, she died while carrying out her duties. Being a journalist in wartime is a dangerous business. I know—I was a journalist for 31 years and covered the First Lebanon War.

“What happened next can’t be excused by the fog of war. Palestinian propaganda used Abu Akleh, accusing Israel of deliberately targeting her,” Lapid said. “She would surely have known better. If the outrageous claim that Israel targets journalists were true, why would she have worked in the region for more than 20 years? How can it be explained that still today hundreds of foreign journalists work in the same place? Al Jazeera, a network run by an Islamist state that is openly hostile to Israel, has permanent staff in Israel who are protected by the state the network slanders on a regular basis?... Missing from the media coverage of Shireen Abu Akleh’s death is the reason for the outbreak of the fighting that led to it. Israel conducted antiterror operations around the city of Jenin because terror cells that murdered innocent Israeli civilians came from there. Six days before Abu Akleh’s death, three Israelis were slaughtered with axes in the city of Elad.”

In Newsweek, Alan Dershowitz said there were three main conclusions: it was forensically impossible to ID the bullet, it was "likely" but far from certain it came from an Israeli soldier, and that evidence suggests no one targeted Abu Akleh.

"Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem entirely satisfied with these three conclusions, and the Palestinians persist in their totally unfounded and counter-evidentiary claim that Israeli soldiers were ordered to target Shireen Abu Akleh because of her anti-Israel reporting," he wrote. "They also falsely claim that this is part of a policy of Israeli targeting of unfriendly journalists. Nothing could be further from the truth... Israeli leaders assert that even if the bullet had come from an Israeli soldier, the moral and legal blame lies squarely with the Palestinian groups who initiated the encounter: first, by encouraging terrorism against Israeli citizens, and second, by shooting at Israeli soldiers who were engaged in a completely lawful effort to arrest murderers.

“Another important point is to put the killing of this one journalist in the context of the dozens of journalists who are killed each year covering military conflicts, such as those who have died in Ukraine,” Dershowitz wrote. “When put in this context, it becomes clear that the international focus on this one shooting is nothing less than a manifestation of international anti-Semitism against the nation-state of the Jewish people. Whenever Israel does anything wrong, questionable, or sometimes even justifiable, the international community and the media tend to focus unprecedented attention on the only nation-state of the Jewish people. By comparison, the killings of other journalists are either ignored or buried.”

In The Jerusalem Post, Mark Regev said "the main Western press, while critical of Israel, tended to be careful not to be overly unequivocal in drawing conclusions as to the shooter."

“In contrast, Al Jazeera was vociferously explicit, immediately accusing Israel of ‘blatant murder’ and deliberately targeting its journalist in a ‘cold-blooded’ assassination. From the moment the news broke, the network was declaring Israel’s criminal responsibility, either it instantly had all the facts, or the specifics were unimportant when given an opportunity to point the finger," Regev wrote. "The accusation of a willful murder is made when among the nations of the Middle East it is in Israel alone that a free and critical press thrives. Israel’s famously boisterous and pugnacious media is always ready to expose a misbehaving politician, government wrongdoing and the IDF’s mistakes. This while the practice in the PA and Al Jazeera falls into a very different category.

“Although a PA basic law theoretically guarantees a free press, in reality such freedom is nonexistent: the media is severely constrained, critical platforms are shut down and journalists arrested when the authorities object to their work. Reporters have been beaten while in custody, blogger Nizar Banat ended up dead. When Abbas was angered by an Al Jazeera story, he ordered the closure of the network’s Ramallah offices. The Palestinian president might have championed the deceased Abu Akleh as a martyr, but live Palestinian journalists know what may happen if they incur the wrath of the PA. For its part, Al Jazeera likes to present its reporting as hard-hitting independent journalism, but the Qatari government-funded channel’s hundreds of employees never report about matters that could embarrass their patron.”


My take.

Whenever I write about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, I feel like it’s necessary to remind readers both that I'm a Jew and that I spent about six months living in a yeshiva in east Jerusalem (and traveling the Middle East). I say this only to acknowledge that my own experiences bias me, even though in today's American-Jewish culture many of Israel's most prominent critics are themselves Jews.

One could very easily take detours into the Israel-Palestine history of conflict on this story, the terrorist attacks Israelis have been navigating for months, the morality of the Israeli army vs. Hamas, or the occupation in the West Bank. But those questions are much larger than what I aim to address here.

There is a fundamental question at the heart of this story: Who killed Shireen Abu Akleh?

And the answer seems clear.

It was an Israeli soldier.

The United Nations' investigation seemed the most thorough, and it was rather conclusive. Despite the organization's bias against Israel (yes, that's real) its conclusion is now supported by thorough reporting, with video evidence and witness testimony, laid out by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN. If you are conservative, "pro-Israel", or otherwise skeptical of the mainstream press, those names may not be convincing (I’m some of those things, and I get it). But in this case, the reporting they did is invaluable and quite definitive (it's worth noting that outlets like CNN, while obsessively anti-Trump in their domestic reporting, still do tremendous reporting abroad). I encourage you to read their investigations yourself.

To be crystal clear, this should not be controversial or contested. There is no actual counter-narrative here anymore. Israel is no longer claiming Palestinian forces killed Abu Akleh, the U.S. State Department is not seriously entertaining that idea, and the U.N. and Palestinian Authority have both said in clear language it was an Israeli soldier. Everything I've read and watched suggests this was the case.

The only question is whether the killing was ordered by superiors, if the soldier who fired intentionally targeted their shot, or if it truly was an accident born out of chaos. There needs to be a thorough investigation to discover which scenario actually took place, followed by a proportional punishment.

Demanding answers from Israel in this case, as many in the Arab world and the press have, is not anti-Semitism. As a fellow Jew, I'm sympathetic to people like Alan Dershowitz who see anti-Jew obsession in the world, and I've certainly acquired antennas for anti-Semitism. But equally pernicious as anti-Semitism is Islamaphobia and anti-Arab sentiment, and the knee jerk reaction from many in the West to trust the word of Israeli politicians even over video evidence and eyewitness testimony provided by Arab reporters.

And while it's true that Israel is often singled out for and ridiculed as a bad actor on the global stage, it's also true that there are plenty of reasons besides anti-Semitism that Abu Akleh's story is getting a lot more attention than foreign correspondents being killed in Ukraine or other active war zones. The most obvious of them is that Abu Akleh was famous.

She was, literally, a household name. It's also true that her reporting had exposed Israeli wrongdoing, which makes it easier to believe that Israeli forces would want her dead. She was also American, which makes her story more important to many in the American press. And, while she was in the vicinity of clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, she was not in a traditional active war zone. She wasn't killed with dozens of others in a bombing — she was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier while clearly identifiable as a reporter. All of these things make her story unique and make the attention it’s getting well deserved and understandable.

It also demands accountability. I admire much about Israel, including its democratic norms and its press freedom. For all the horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yair Lapid is right when he notes that reporters are free to do their work in Israel in a way they are not in many other surrounding Arab nations, and it certainly allows far more press freedom than the Palestinian Authority ever has.

But none of this means a reporter's death is justified or excusable. The standard, if Israel wants to be the kind of force it claims to be, is not whether it allows reporters to report freely before they are shot in the head. It's not whether a reporter was intentionally killed. It's not even whether it can plausibly deny definitive proof because of some kind of forensic failure. It's inexcusable, even in a dangerous and chaotic situation, that a clearly-marked reporter in a press flak jacket would be shot in the head by a member of the military.

And in this case, there is good evidence and reason to believe this was not a dangerous or chaotic scenario. Abu Akleh, a seasoned correspondent, was seen joking and conversing with colleagues moments before she was shot. The IDF was about 600 feet from Abu Akleh when she was killed, and it said at least one soldier was using a telescopic scope. Based on everything we know, the most likely story appears to be that a soldier (or soldiers) fired on the journalists unprovoked from a long range.

Palestinians and Israel critics are perfectly reasonable to wonder if the killing was intentional. Real accountability means naming the soldier behind the bullet and putting them on trial. It's inconceivable that an army as organized as Israel's doesn't already have that information. Anything less is a stain on Israel, and another reason for antagonism and mistrust toward the forces they deploy.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paid subscriber, you can leave a comment.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Following up on the reader question about proof of citizenship and voting in Arizona (6 July 2022), I'm curious about your take on voter ID laws. I'm aware that voter fraud is not really a problem (as you've aptly demonstrated), and I'm sure they are used to prevent people from voting. Yet, in most countries I've lived in, for instance, everyone has to show ID to vote. What do you think?

— Michael, Belgrade, Serbia

Tangle: It's a complicated question. In a vacuum, I think voter ID laws are great, in that they would probably inspire more confidence in our elections at a time when people seem very skeptical of election results. I also think, even if voter and election fraud are rare, there are reasonable cases to be made for ID laws (like the idea it's a simple step to stop future fraud).

My biggest apprehension is just the availability of those IDs. Many Tangle readers have often expressed shock that I think this would be a problem, noting that they can't imagine functioning in society without a photo ID. But the truth is that a small percentage of Americans have no government-issued photo identification, which equates to millions of people who would struggle to vote under a national photo ID requirement.

Of course, 34 states already have forms of voter ID laws. Some don't require photos, but ask for things like credit cards or bank statements as proof of ID and residency at the polls. So, if we were going to require government-issued photo identification, I would only support such a bill if it also provided free government IDs to every citizen. The most common photo ID is a driver’s license, and relying on your electorate obtaining these to vote is impractical, inapplicable, and generally classist. Simply put: I have no objection to the concept, and in fact can see the merit of it, but there shouldn't be additional barriers (like spending an entire work day at the DMV, $60, and learning to drive a car) to vote.

This fact-check is a great piece on how many people actually don't have IDs (the estimates are hard to peg) and this Vox story is a great round-up of studies showing voter ID laws don't really prevent fraud or cause voter suppression.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Many states across the U.S. are turning to minors in an attempt to fill holes in their labor markets. In Michigan and Maine, 17 year olds can now serve alcohol. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy is allowing 16 and 17 year olds to work 50 hours a week during the summer months, and 14 and 15 year olds can now work 40 hours a week. Other cities are also coming up with creative solutions: In D.C., for instance, Mayor Muriel Bowser is offering new police officers a $20,000 hiring bonus, while Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Kentucky, is boosting tuition assistance for students seeking degrees that involve health care. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 2,161. The number of journalists and media workers killed since 1992, according to the Committee for Protecting Journalists.
  • 55. The number of journalists and media workers killed globally in 2021, according to the United Nations.
  • Two-thirds. The fraction of those journalists who died in countries where there is no armed conflict.
  • 9 in 10. The number of journalist killings since 2006 that remain unresolved.
  • 15. The number of journalists and media workers killed in Ukraine so far this year.

Have a nice day.

In a thrilling story for anyone who loves space (and imagination), researchers say the five foundational bases of DNA and RNA have now been discovered in meteorites. The discovery adds to evidence that suggests life’s precursors came from space, according to Science News. In April, scientists said they found the last two of the five informational units of DNA and RNA that had yet to be found in meteorite samples — adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine and uracil.

"The discovery, by an international team with NASA researchers, gives more evidence that chemical reactions in asteroids can make some of life’s ingredients, which could have been delivered to ancient Earth by meteorite impacts or perhaps the infall of dust," NASA said. "The finding doesn’t provide a smoking gun as to whether life on Earth got an assist from space or came about exclusively in the prebiotic soup in the planet’s infancy. But completing the set of nucleobases that make up life today, in addition to other molecules found in the sample, gives scientists who are trying to understand the beginning of life more compounds to experiment with in the lab."


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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