Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid issued a stern response to a request from the Joe Biden administration. After the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, on Tuesday the State Department asked Tel Aviv to review its rules of engagement in the occupied West Bank. On Wednesday, Lapid fired back saying, “no one will dictate our rules of engagement to us.”
In May, Abu Akleh and several of her colleagues were in Jenin to report on a raid conducted by the Israeli security forces. The journalists were all wearing bulletproof vests and helmets marked ‘press’ when soldiers shot Abu Akleh in the face, killing her. Another reporter was shot as well but survived.
The narrative from Tel Aviv has changed several times. After the murder, then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett claimed Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian militants. “According to the data we have at the moment, there is a good chance that armed Palestinians, who fired wildly, are the ones who led to the unfortunate death of the journalist,” Bennett’s statement said.
However, the government’s narrative was quickly disputed by the Israeli human rights monitoring group B’Tselem, which concluded that “documentation of Palestinian gunfire distributed by [the] Israeli military cannot be the gunfire that killed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.”
An Israeli official later suggested that the soldiers fired on the journalists because they were “armed with cameras.” In the weeks following the murder, several Western media outlets and human rights groups concluded that Israeli forces killed the well-known journalist.
Last week, Tel Aviv released its report on the killing. Investigators concluded that Abu Akleh was likely unintentionally killed by Israeli forces and there was no need for a criminal inquiry. During a speech at a naval base on Wednesday, Lapid said he would “not allow them to put an IDF soldier on trial who defended himself against fire from terrorists.”
As Washington is Israel’s most important benefactor – providing it some $3.8 billion in military aid annually – and because Abu Akleh is a dual American citizen, the journalist’s family and rights groups have urged the White House to take action. While the Biden administration has said the death is tragic, it has not condemned Tel Aviv or pressed for accountability for Abu Akleh’s killers.
Last month, Axios reported that the State Department asked Israel to review its rules of engagement in the West Bank, where militarized security forces frequently carry out armed raids against alleged “terrorists.” In response, an Israeli official denied that any such request was made, and said Tel Aviv would have likely ignored it in any case.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Vedant Patel made the request public on Tuesday, saying “We will continue to press Israel directly and closely at the senior-most levels to review its policies and practices on this to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again in the future,” referring to the Abu Akleh murder.
Prime Minister Lapid firmly rebuked Washington for making the request. He said, “no one will dictate our rules of engagement to us, when we are the ones fighting for our lives.” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz added that the “Israeli Defense Force’s chief of the general staff, and he alone, determines, and will continue to determine the rules of engagement in accordance with our operational needs and values of the IDF.”
Tel Aviv’s security forces have killed scores of Palestinian journalists since 2000, helping to suppress Palestinian voices as Israel seeks to maintain international support, despite being labeled an apartheid state by several established rights groups.