On May 11, 2022, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) shot and killed veteran Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering a military raid on a refugee camp outside the West Bank city of Jenin. Dressed in labeled “PRESS” jackets and helmets, Abu Akleh’s Al Jazeera colleagues filmed the moments after she was shot, during which the sniper continued firing at other reporters attempting to retrieve her body.
After Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem debunked Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s claims that a stray bullet fired by Palestinians struck Abu Akleh, the Israeli government called for a joint probe into the journalist’s murder with the Palestinian Authority (PA), requesting the handover of the bullet and Abu Akleh’s body to conduct an autopsy. The PA has refused, citing the historic lack of transparency and accountability in investigations of other civilian murders and the illegal occupation of the IDF in the Palestinian territories. The PA instead chose to conduct an independent probe.
The PA’s investigation concluded that the bullet matched a weapon regularly used by the IDF, the Ruger Mini-14. Al Jazeera correspondent Nida Ibrahim reported that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh “was 5.56mm, and it corresponds with Mini Ruger sniper fire weapon.” The Israeli probe has made no progress.
The US State Department has made clear that it will rely on the findings from Israel’s investigation. The government’s nominal commitment to free speech, it appears, is less important than placating its allies, ranging from foreign governments to multinational corporations.
Silence From the States
A small number of Congressmen, led by Representatives André Carson (D-IN) and Lou Correa (D-CA), have penned a letter requesting the Biden administration conduct an independent investigation of the Palestinian American journalist’s murder. “We . . . request the US Department of State determines whether any US laws protecting Ms. Abu Akleh, an American citizen, were violated,” reads the letter. “As an American, Ms. Abu Akleh was entitled to the full protections afforded to US citizens living abroad.”
Despite the extrajudicial murder of an American citizen and journalist by a foreign government, the Biden administration has refused to conduct its own independent investigation. Instead, Secretary of State Antony Blinken intends to rely on the results of the Israeli probe, which refuses to proceed without Abu Akleh’s buried body.
This is not the first time the US federal government has refused to investigate the death of an American citizen at the hands of the IDF. In 2003, it left the murder of activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza to be deliberated by Israeli courts.
The call for US-led investigations into IDF war crimes in Israel’s illegally occupied Palestinian territories has fallen on deaf ears for many years. The IDF receives $3.8 billion in American public money annually in military aid, as per the renewed ten-year Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Obama administration in 2016. Demanding a US-led investigation into the murder of Abu Akleh opens legal avenues for Palestinian and American activists and politicians alike to challenge this continued financial support to the IDF.
The United States absolutely has the power to conduct such investigations. The freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice” is protected by Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which the US and Israel are ratified signatories.
And should the investigation reveal war crimes, the United States’ financial support for the IDF would come under automatic scrutiny. As per Leahy Law, the US federal government is prohibited from providing “assistance . . . to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”
A US-led investigation is critical not only to attaining accountability for the IDF’s murder of Abu Akleh and eighty-six other journalists reporting from the Palestinian territories since 1967, but for challenging Israel’s taxpayer-funded illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. And that’s precisely why the State Department is uninterested in pursuing it.
The Military-Industrial Complex
Given the United States’ long history of providing diplomatic immunity to Israel, having vetoed at least 53 UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel in the past five decades, the United States’ lack of interest in accountability for the murder of Abu Akleh comes as no surprise. However, outside the well-covered geopolitical reasons the United States has in historically giving Israel impunity, one underreported facet of the human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories is the vested interest of the American military-industrial complex in arming the IDF.
The sniper rifle used to murder Abu Akleh, the Ruger Mini-14, is manufactured and sold by American weapons manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Co., which has a distribution dealership in Israel and promotes its firearms by highlighting the IDF’s use of them.
Israel is the fourteenth-largest importer of weapons globally, with 92 percent of its imports coming from the United States. Effectively, US military aid to Israel subsidizes purchases from American weapons manufacturers and defense contractors. As sociologist Max Ajl writes, “‘US ‘military assistance,’ more accurately understood as a circular flow through which US weapons firms profit off the colonization of Palestinian land and Israeli destabilization of the surrounding states, is a long-term structuring element of the U.S.-Israel ‘special relationship.'” In other words, the neoliberal economic orientation that tasks the government with promoting the interests and profits of private-sector firms above all else extends to US foreign policy.
According to Open Secrets, between 2001 and 2021, American defense contractors and weapons manufacturers directed “$285 million in campaign contributions and $2.5 billion in lobbying spending to influence defense policy.” These companies include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon Technologies, and General Dynamics.
Among the most prominent lobbyists for both domestic and foreign arms sales are the infamous National Rifle Association and the lesser-known National Shooting Sports Foundation, which spent $1.2 million in lobbying expenditures in 2021. The NSSF’s president, Steve Sanetti, was a chief executive and later president of Sturm, Ruger & Co. — the manufacturer of Abu Akleh’s murder weapon.
The insinuation that American defense contractors and weapons manufacturers condone the killing of American journalists may invite disbelief. But a reflection on the case of human rights lawyer Steven Donziger attests to its plausibility.
Donziger successfully represented the indigenous Ecuadorian group the Amazon Defense Coalition in its legal battle against American oil company Texaco, holding them accountable for 16 billion gallons of toxic waste dumped into the Lago Agrio region of the Amazon rainforest between 1972 and 1992. Since then, Donziger’s professional and personal life have been under attack by Texaco’s parent company, the American multinational oil giant Chevron.
In 2011, Chevron refused to pay the $9.5 billion settlement for the pollution carried out three decades prior, and launched a countersuit against Donziger accusing him of bribery and fraud. The company claimed that Donziger embellished the extent of the pollution and Texaco’s accountability, having been bribed by Ecuadorian officials to scapegoat the oil company for the state’s role in failing to mitigate the pollution in Lago Agrio. Chevron’s claim has been thoroughly debunked.
Leaked Chevron documents from 2009 reveal that company officials made it an explicit long-term strategy to “demonize” the human rights lawyer to turn the tide of the legal battle against him. Meanwhile, the Amazon Defense Coalition has not received any of the agreed settlement.
Chevron filed a “racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations” (RICO) suit, usually levied against organized crime rings, against Donziger. The federal court judge who presided over Donziger’s case was Lewis A. Kaplan, a former corporate lawyer for the tobacco industry who held investments in Chevron. Kaplan found Donziger guilty of the RICO charges in 2014.
The district attorney’s office in New York refused to prosecute Donziger despite Kaplan’s ruling. Kaplan then took an unusual action for a federal court judge: he invoked Rule 42, which allows a federal judge to appoint a private law firm to prosecute on behalf of the courts if prosecutors refuse to. Kaplan appointed the law firm Seward & Kissel, of which Chevron is a regular client, to represent the US government and ensure that the criminal charges would be brought against Donziger.
Leading up to the trial against Donziger by Seward & Kissel, in another unusual move, Kaplan skipped the standard random assignment process for choosing a judge and directly appointed senior District Judge Loretta Preska to preside over the case. Preska has served on the advisory board of the Federalist Society, to which Chevron is a significant financial contributor.
In August 2019, Preska confiscated Donziger’s passport and sentenced him to house arrest for the trial’s duration. On October 1, 2021, after two years of house arrest, Preska found Donziger guilty of all charges and sentenced him to six months in jail, the maximum sentence.
“Corporate influence over our federal judiciary has increased dramatically in recent years,” said Donziger during the trial. Chevron “has captured an element of power from the government and deployed it against a human rights activist.”
The Corporate War on Free Speech
In the Steven Donziger’s case, the United States took direct action on behalf of the oil and gas industry. In Shireen Abu Akleh’s case, the US is pursuing inaction, at least partly on behalf of arms manufacturers and the broader military-industrial complex.
Donziger was released from prison April 26 and is finally free of persecution. But Abu Akleh is dead and, due to the United States’ refusal to launch an independent investigation, is unlikely to have justice.
In both cases, the US government has sided with corporate interests over the value of free speech, including journalists’ right to report without fear of harassment and violence and the public’s right to information from a free press. Abu Akleh and Donziger’s cases reveal the cold, calculated pragmatism with which multinational corporations rope the US government into their project of maintaining global economic hegemony.
Our news cycles are dominated by talk of “cancel culture,” and yet average people pay little attention to cases like Abu Akleh’s and Donziger’s. If the mainstream conversation is going to center on free speech, it should highlight the blatant collusion between neoliberal governments and multinational corporations to silence journalists and activists challenging exploitation and injustice around the world.