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Sen. Chris Van Hollen: State Dept. Must Release Report on Shireen Abu Akleh Death, Hold Killers Accountable

Written by on 17/06/2023

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

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

The Biden administration is continuing to face criticism for its response to the killing last year of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot in the head by an Israeli soldier as she was reporting on an Israeli military raid just outside the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. The Al Jazeera reporter was shot while wearing a blue helmet and blue flak jacket clearly emblazoned with the word “press.” Shireen Abu Akleh was one of the most prominent TV journalists in the Arab world. She was also a U.S. citizen.

NBC News recently reported the FBI has not yet spoken to any key witnesses in the case. Israel has refused to cooperate with the probe, and Palestinian journalists who were with Shireen at the time of her death say the FBI has never contacted them. Many of the journalists who witnessed her death spoke to Al Jazeera correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous for the documentary The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, which just won a George Polk Award. This is Shireen’s producer, Ali al-Samoudi, who was also shot that day.

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!”

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh from Al Jazeera English’s current affairs program Fault Lines. The documentary recently won a George Polk Award for Foreign Television Reporting, one of the highest awards in journalism. Investigations by Al Jazeera, The New York Times, CNN and other news outlets have challenged the official Israeli version of Shireen’s killing.

We’re joined now by Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who has called on the U.S. State Department to declassify a report on Shireen Abu Akleh’s death on May 11th, 2022, conducted by the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Senator Chris Van Hollen joins us now from Kensington, Maryland.

Thanks so much for being with us, Senator. Can you start off by explaining what this report is and what you’re calling for?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, Amy, it’s good to be with you.

This was a report conducted by General Fenzel and his team. He’s the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authorities. And he conducted an extensive review of what happened in the killing of Shireen.

I should emphasize that his report is not an independent investigation. And he was not able to conduct an independent investigation because, as you indicated, Israeli authorities have not cooperated with the government. That’s information I’ve received from the State Department. In other words, requests to deny [sic] the soldier in question or other members of the IDF unit have been denied. So, it’s not an independent investigation.

But it does shed very important light on the conduct of the IDF unit in question on the day of the shooting of Shireen, and also, more broadly, reaches conclusions about the conduct of other IDF units in the West Bank. And it’s my view that the report should be declassified, because it is important to getting to accountability in the shooting death of Shireen Abu Akleh, and I believe its release will help save lives, going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has the Biden administration said about releasing this document? And what process does it have to go through?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, they have not yet responded to the request to release the document. I should say that in this particular case, the final classification process has not yet been completed. The overall report that I reviewed, after much insistence, has — is classified “top secret,” but it has actually not gone through its final classification process.

So, we are very focused right now on making the case that it’s important to release the findings of this document to ensure greater accountability in the shooting death of this American citizen and journalist — it includes important information on the killing of Shireen — and because I believe that it will reveal additional information that will — would, hopefully, result in more accountability for IDF units on the West Bank, something that President Biden has called for and something that Secretary Blinken has called for.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Van Hollen, how does this report differ from the U.S. security coordinator’s report from last year, which you were very critical of?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, as it turns out, last year’s report was not really a report. It was just a very cursory finding, a conclusion based on a very preliminary review, not of independent information, but information that had been provided by the Israeli government, by the Palestinian Authority. So, it turned out that there was no real report there when we asked for it.

So, now the USSC has conducted an extensive review of all the analyses that have been done, and reached certain judgments about what happened that day, and certain judgments, again, about the conduct of other IDF units. And I just think it’s really important that this report, which is not a paragraph like the original, you know, findings, but an eight-page report — I believe it should be released.

AMY GOODMAN: And why is this report classified as “top secret” in the first place?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, that’s a good question. And, you know, I think that the findings are clearly critical of the conduct of the IDF unit in question. And again, this is why Secretary Blinken has also called upon the government of Israel to review its rules of engagement on the West Bank. And he’s been rebuffed. In other words, the government of Israel told him to go take a hike. And that’s another reason it’s really important that this report be released.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you Shireen Abu Akleh’s niece. I interviewed her in December. This is Lina Abu Akleh.

LINA ABU AKLEH: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Lina Abu Akleh, the niece of Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed on May 11, 2022, as she covered an Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp in occupied West Bank. Shireen is a U.S. citizen. Shireen is a Palestinian American journalist. Senator Chris Van Hollen, what obligation does the United States have when it believes another state — in this case, an ally, Israel — has killed a U.S. citizen?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, it’s my belief that the United States has an absolute obligation to get to the bottom of what happened, to hold the individuals accountable, or, in this case, potentially, the IDF unit accountable. And that is something that we should do when you have the wrongful killing of a U.S. citizen.

Look, you know, President Biden has been eloquent about calling for the release of U.S. journalists who are currently detained around the world. He has been eloquent about trying to get to the bottom of what happened to Austin Tice, as have I in both those other cases, determined to try to make sure that American citizens and journalists are protected. That same protection needs to extend to American citizen and journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. And that is the obligation of the U.S. government, and it is a still-unfulfilled obligation.

AMY GOODMAN: The FBI has also opened an investigation into the case. Do you know anything about this investigation, Senator?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, my understanding is the FBI investigation is ongoing, although the FBI will not publicly confirm whether or not the investigation is ongoing. But my understanding is the FBI investigators have talked to some people. But you raised a very important point, which is that the FBI will also, ultimately, require the cooperation of the government of Israel to be able to make any final conclusions with respect to an independent investigation, right? The investigation done by the U.S. security coordinator was not an independent investigation because he was not allowed to interview witnesses, including members of the IDF unit in question. And the FBI, in my view, is going to have a very difficult time making independent judgments as to exactly what happened that day, without the cooperation of the government of Israel. And that is another reason it’s important that the Biden administration press harder.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you going to demand that at least the FBI, even if they don’t have access on Israel’s side, to the Palestinian journalists who were there that day, one of whom was shot, who were not contacted for this report?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, the FBI certainly should be interviewing all the witnesses, including the witnesses that you just mentioned, the Al Jazeera journalists that were on the ground, and others. Yes, the FBI should be doing all of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And did the U.S. security coordinator’s report shed any light on Israeli claims of crossfire, since video footage and eyewitnesses dispute this? And also, since you read it, did the report confirm whether or not there is more body-camera footage from the IDF unit from the moments around the shooting?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, I can’t get into the details of the report, because it is still classified. But let me just say the conclusions of the report, I believe, if made public, would result in saving lives and, I do believe, would bring more accountability to this case, because that does shed very important light on the conduct and misconduct of the IDF unit in question. So, this is exactly why I think it’s important that the report be declassified.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask a final question. The first USSC report found no reason to believe the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh was intentional. Does this new report come to a different conclusion?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, this new report cannot shed any new light on the question of intentionality, because the USSC was denied access to the witnesses. You know, it’s my view that you can only get to the state of mind of individuals by interviewing the individual who pulled the trigger, as well as those that were immediately around that soldier. And so long as that access is denied, you can’t shed any more new light on that question.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Chris Van Hollen, I want to thank you for being with us, Democratic senator from Maryland, calling for the release of the U.S. government report on the shooting death of the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Coming up, we go to Montana, where calls are growing for authorities to investigate the death of Mika Westwolf, a 22-year-old Indigenous woman who died after being hit by a car driven by a white nationalist. We’ll speak with Mika’s parents. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mika Westwolf playing a ukulele.

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