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'It's not on us to say precisely what the IDF should do'

US appears to back off pressuring Israel on IDF rules of engagement after backlash

State Department says it is not being ‘prescriptive’ in talks with Israeli officials on seeking accountability for Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing, in shift from previous comments

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Protesters hold posters for slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh near the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Protesters hold posters for slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh near the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The Biden administration on Tuesday appeared to step away from urging Israel’s military to review its open-fire protocols in the wake of the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, after Israeli leaders expressed ire over the US’s suggestion.

The State Department called on Israel publicly last week to consider reforming its rules of engagement after the fatal May 11 shooting, which an Israeli probe found had likely been the result of errant Israel Defense Forces fire, as a way of providing accountability for her death. But the comments sparked a furious Israeli backlash, including from Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who fumed over the attempt to “dictate” Israel’s policies.

“No one knows the IDF’s processes and procedures better than the IDF, and so it is not on us or any other country or entity to say precisely what the IDF or any military or security organization around the world should do,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday.

Earlier this month, the IDF announced that its internal investigation found that one of its soldiers was likely responsible for what it said was Abu Akleh’s accidental death. The reporter was killed while covering an IDF raid of the northern West Bank Palestinian city of Jenin when a firefight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen broke out.

The Palestinian Authority said its investigation showed Abu Akleh was intentionally killed by Israeli forces — a claim Israel has dismissed as a blatant lie.

The Biden administration has rebuffed calls from Abu Akleh’s family and progressive Democrats to conduct an independent US investigation; a US embassy official in Jerusalem who reviewed the Israeli and Palestinian Authority investigations along with the results of an inconclusive ballistics analysis also found that Abu Akleh was killed accidentally likely by IDF fire.

Price, pressed repeatedly on the issue during a briefing Tuesday that focused heavily on matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, avoided criticizing Israel’s handling of the case.

“We’ve noted and underscored the imperative of accountability, but we haven’t been prescriptive,” he said.

A photo of slain US-Palestinian Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, with a caption in Arabic reading ‘Shireen Abu Akleh, the voice of Palestine,’ is seen ahead of a joint press conference between the US and Palestinian Authority presidents in Bethlehem on July 15, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“It is incumbent on us to continue to underscore the importance that we place on mitigating civilian harm and taking steps, including policies and procedures revised policies and procedures that would mitigate the possibility of civilian harm.”

Price said Washington was “not looking for criminal accountability,” noting the Israeli and US embassy probes that found the killing to have been unintentional.

However, asked whether the US is satisfied with the level of accountability it has seen from Israel, the spokesman only offered that the US is “continuing to discuss this with our Israeli partners.”

The comments were a stark departure from a statement issued by Price’s deputy Vedant Patel on September 6, which indicated that the US was applying pressure for Israel to look into reforms as a way to provide accountability in the Al Jazeera reporter’s killing.

Patel, who appeared to be reading from a prepared statement, said the US would “continue to press our Israeli partners to closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagement.”

A statement released a day earlier, following the IDF announcement on its internal probe, had not included the recommendation regarding reviewing the rules of engagement.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, March 10, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / POOL / AFP)

However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had brought up the suggestion to review the IDF’s open-fire rules to his Israeli counterparts in a number of recent phone calls, according to two Israeli and US officials.

Patel’s public comments drew the ire of Israeli leaders, who loudly rejected the proposal.

“No one will dictate our rules of engagement to us when we are the ones fighting for our lives,” Lapid said at the time. “Our soldiers have the full backing of the government of Israel and the people of Israel.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz vowed that there would be “no political involvement in the matter.”

After speaking to US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett issued a statement saying he told the envoy that “American intervention in IDF soldiers’ rules of engagement is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.”

According to unnamed Israeli officials cited by the Haaretz daily, the comments were aimed at Israel’s domestic audience, with the politicians seeking to appeal to hawkish-minded voters ahead of Knesset elections scheduled for November 1.

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, left, meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021. (GPO/Amos Ben-Gershom)

One Israeli official cited by Haaretz claimed the initial US recommendation was also aimed at progressives expecting a tougher response from Biden ahead of midterm elections scheduled for November 8. No US officials corroborated the speculation.

‘Bend and break the cycle’

Price also weighed in on a dispute between Israel and the PA regarding the ongoing spike of violence in the West Bank, with Jerusalem claiming that the PA is not doing enough to crack down on terror and Ramallah countering that Israeli raids into areas under Palestinian control undermine its security forces and inflame tensions.

“It is undeniably true that Israel faces a profound threat” from Hamas in Gaza, terror groups and lone actors from the West Bank who have carried out attacks in recent months, Price said.

However, he also noted that the PA’s ability to address security threats in the West Bank is hampered when its ties with Israel “are at a nadir.”

Israeli forces have been carrying out nightly raids in PA-controlled areas of the West Bank for months as part of Operation Breakwater, launched after a series of deadly attacks that killed 19 people between mid-March and the beginning of May.

More than 1,500 suspects have been detained since the start of the operation.

Illustrative: IDF soldiers carry out raids in the West Bank on August 18, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Meanwhile, at least 90 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces so far this year, according to a tally from the PA health ministry. The list included Palestinians who carried out attacks inside Israel, teens violently protesting the IDF’s nightly raids and Abu Akleh.

Price said the Biden administration was working to bring the sides closer together while also boosting its respective ties with the two parties.

“We sincerely believe that through that work… we can…help to bend and break the cycle of violence,” he said. “It’s a long-term proposition [and] will likely be a proposition that future administrations will have to contend with as well.”

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