Back in mid-August, Barak Ravid reported that after the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the Biden administration asked Israel to review the IDF’s rules of engagement during military operations in Judea and Samaria.
This was before the IDF announced there was a great likelihood that Abu Akleh had been shot by a Duvdevan soldier from 200 yards. In fact, in August, the Biden administration was still sticking with the theory that Abu Akleh had likely been killed by unintentional Israeli fire, but stressed––after the PA finally and reluctantly parted with the bullet fragment that was removed from her body––that the ballistics test of that fragment was “inconclusive.”
On August 18, we reported that Secretary of State Tony Blinken asked Defense Minister Benny Gantz in a phone conversation to review the IDF rules of engagement in Judea and Samaria, suggesting this would help the accountability in the Abu Akleh case (Blinken Reportedly Asked Gantz to Review IDF’s Rules of Engagement in Light of Abu Akleh Death). Blinken told Gantz that either the rules of engagement weren’t followed, or they need to be reviewed. Gantz told Blinken that situations on the ground during military operations are not always black and white.
That was it. A conversation between two politicians, one of whom happened to have commanded the strongest army in the Middle East. Neither man supported the rampant killing of journalists in battle, and both probably agreed that what can you do, stuff happens.
Ravid cited a senior Israeli official at the time, who said there was no official US request to change the rules of engagement, and pointed out that “Israel is a sovereign country and the rules of engagement save lives.”
Ravid also reported that “the Biden administration is planning to follow up on the call with more talks with the Israelis on the IDF rules of engagement in the West Bank.” Call it a polite disagreement between friends.
But earlier this week the IDF finally admitted that it was more likely that Abu Akleh had been shot by an IDF soldier than an Arab terrorist and the polite conversation turned into a shouting match.
It began with a Monday press release by US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, who announced: “Today, the IDF reported that it had concluded its investigation into the circumstances surrounding Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, and stated there is a high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire. We welcome Israel’s review of this tragic incident, and again underscore the importance of accountability in this case, such as policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.”
Nides added: “The United States has made it a priority to mitigate and respond to civilian harm caused by military operations. The Department of Defense recently underscored the need to improve its own assessments and practices to ensure civilian harm mitigation and we will continue to share best practices with our military partners and allies around the world.”
This was followed up during Tuesday’s State Dept. briefing with Vedant Patel, Principal Deputy Spokesperson, who was asked by the AP’s Matt Lee: “On the IDF report yesterday, I’m a little confused as to what your actual response and what your actual position is. This is an American citizen who was killed. You have called for accountability, and yet there does not seem to be any accountability there. And the statement that came out yesterday in Ned’s name mentions accountability, but are you satisfied that the Israelis have done what they need to do in terms of this case?”
To which Patel responded: “We continue to underscore the importance of accountability in this case, and we’re going to continue to press our Israeli partners to closely review their policies and practices on rules of engagement and consider additional steps to mitigate the risk of civilian harm, protect journalists, and prevent similar tragedies in the future. Ultimately, that is a key goal for us, as the statement from Ned yesterday expressed, it is to underscore that similar actions and similar occurrences don’t happen in the future. And that’s what we continue to reiterate with our Israeli partners.”
Matt Lee hammered: “Well, but do you think that accountability has been achieved?”
Patel defended: “So again, we’ve continued to underscore the importance of accountability in this case, and we’re continuing to press our Israeli partners on that.”
“Well, forgive me for not accepting – that doesn’t mean anything,” the AP correspondent pressed on. “I mean, I continue to underscore the fact that the sun must rise in the east and set in the west, which it does, but do you believe that Israel has taken steps to hold whoever is responsible for her death accountable?”
Patel hemmed and hawed, and Lee smacked him with steady self-righteousness: “What does accountability mean to this administration?”
“Look, Matt, so I’m not going to categorize that in one way or the other from here. That’s for our Israeli partners to determine. What for us to do – and what we’re – the role we’re continuing to play is pressing Israel to closely review its policies and practices to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” Patel said.
“What does accountability mean for this administration?” Lee repeated. “An apology? We’re sorry. It happened, maybe, it looks like it happened by accident but it won’t happen again? That’s what accountability is, or is it something more?”
And Patel answered, so help me: “Part of our vision of accountability is ensuring that something like this does not happen again. And that’s something that we continue to raise directly with Israel, that it closely reviews its policies and practices on the rules of engagement, to take additional steps to mitigate risk, to protect journalists, to protect civilian harm, and to ensure that similar tragedies don’t happen in the future.”
“To ensure that similar tragedies don’t happen in the future,” now, that certainly crossed the line.
It’s no longer a friendly conversation between friends and allies, that’s a superpower dictating to a client state. How many lives would it cost the Israeli security forces to ensure that some pro-Palestinian Arab journalist won’t be killed when she decides to step into a shooting war in locations reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?
And that’s when the Israelis lost it. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz launched an angry counter-attack.
“The IDF does not shoot innocents,” Lapid declared at the graduation ceremony of a naval officers’ course. “I will allow the prosecution of an IDF fighter who defended his life against terrorists’ fire just so that we would receive applause abroad. No one will dictate to us our rules of engagement when we are fighting for our lives. Our fighters have the full backing of the Israeli government and the people of Israel.”
Bennett rebuked Ambassador Nides in a well-publicized face-to-face meeting: “The IDF is the most moral army in the world. I am not willing to lose soldiers in vain. The American intervention in the IDF’s rules of engagement is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.”
Gantz also attacked the American position and said in a statement: “The commanders and soldiers implement their instructions carefully – there never was and never will be political involvement in this matter.”
And during his visit Wednesday morning to the Intelligence Division, Gantz said: “The Chief of Staff determines and will continue to determine the rules of engagement in accordance with the operational needs and the purity of our weapons – those instructions are strictly implemented and the IDF soldiers have our full backing to protect the citizens of Israel.”
The principle of “the purity of our weapons” has been part of Israel’s military tradition since before the establishment of the state. It means that an Israeli soldier or member of the security forces will not shoot an innocent or helpless person – including enemy combatants.
Needless to say, there’s no such thing as a pure weapon because, you know, there’s nothing pure about killing. Killing can be justified, for sure, but using the term “pure” borders on fetishism. Still, if you wake up most Israelis in the middle of the night, they’d tell you that our weapons are pure. And what Thomas Nides and Vedant Patel did was step on that sacred myth. And they did it on the eve of a national election in Israel. Now, that was unwise, to use diplomatic language.