Israel: US probe of Abu Akleh’s death a “mistake”

Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh  died while covering a firefight between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli security forces in the West Bank city of Jenin on 11 May.

By Erin Viner

The United States Justice Department is set to launch an investigation into circumstances of her death, with reported assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Both American agencies have declined to comment on the reports.

In a swift response, Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz called the decision into Abu Akeh’s “tragic passing” a “mistake,” and declared that Jerusalem does not intend to “cooperate with an external investigation.”

Israel’s top defense leader stressed that, “the IDF has conducted a professional, independent investigation, which was presented to American officials with whom the case details were shared,” underscoring that he has “delivered a message to US representatives that we stand by the IDF’s soldiers.”

That message was echoed by Prime Minister Yaid Lapid, who called the IDF “a moral and ethical army,” which “thoroughly investigates any irregular event and is committed to the values and laws of democracy.”

Insisting that, “Our soldiers will not be investigated by the FBI or by any other foreign country or entity, however friendly it may be,” the outgoing Israeli leader added that, “We will not abandon our soldiers to foreign investigations” and “We have conveyed our strong protest to the United States.”

The Prime Minister previously expressed regret over Abu Akleh’s death, while emphasizing that the Israeli military investigation had concluded there was no intent to harm her and that he fully backing the IDF.

Upon concluding its own investigation in September, Israel’s military said the veteran reporter was likely unintentionally shot by an Israeli soldier but was not deliberately targeted – while pointing out she also could have hit by Palestinian fire.

“We can say for 100% sure that no IDF soldier intentionally directed fire on a reporter or non-involved person on the ground,” said a senior military official who briefed journalists at the time.

Abu Akleh, who was one of the most recognizable faces reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, died while covering an Israeli military operation in  Jenin, a hotbed of terrorist activity; as well as subsequent violence that erupted during her funeral in Jerusalem on 13 May. The Israeli military reported that troops returned fire after coming under a heavy shooting attack from terrorists in the West Bank city, including those positioned toward where Abu Akleh was standing about 200 meters away – but they had not been able to identify her as a journalist. A colleague was wounded in the incident by another bullet.

It also remains “possible that she was hit by Palestinian gunmen,” emphasized the IDF in its report. The investigation – which included interviews with IDF troops, analysis of the scene in addition to audio and video recordings – concluded that it is “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire” which killed Abu Akleh.

Jerusalem has repeatedly denied she was knowingly targeted by its forces, who responded according to military rules of engagement. When announcing the launching of the IDF inquiry, Defense Minister Benny Gantz stressed that Israeli forces had responded to heavy fire from gunmen in Jenin, and that “the first to bear responsibility in such events, are the terrorists who operate from within population centers.”

At the time of the incident, then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett insisted that, “according to the information we have gathered, it appears likely that armed Palestinians — who were firing indiscriminately at the time — were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist.”

As evidence of his assessment, Prime Minister Bennett released a video filmed by Palestinians in Jenin at the time of the incident in which they are heard boasting: “We hit a soldier; he’s lying on the ground.” (Click here to see the video).

No IDF troops were injured during the mission, which “increases the possibility that Palestinian terrorists were the ones who shot the journalist,” stressed Bennett, who currently serves as Alternate Premier.

Israel furiously denounced a report released by the United Nations Human Rights Office (UNHRC)  in June that Abu Akleh had been standing with other reporters and was clearly identifiable as a journalist from her helmet and blue flak jacket marked with a press badge when she was shot and killed by a single bullet, suggesting it had been fired by an Israeli soldier. The UNHRC is notorious for its pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel stance.

Israeli and Palestinians officials have exchanged bitter recriminations over Abu Akleh’s death.

Palestinian Authority (PA) officials rejected the IDF report. The PA, which seized the bullet taken from the journalist’s body, resoundingly refused to provide it to Israel for forensic examination.

Jerusalem’s top defense official repeatedly called on the PA to deliver the bullet “in order to uncover the truth.”

“Where is the bullet? The Palestinian refusal to pass over the bullet and conduct a joint investigation is evidence of their position,” said a statement from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

Over 1,000 bullets were recovered at the site of the clash, said the military, pointing to further evidence that Abu Akleh had been present during a major exchange of gunfire between Israeli security forces and Palestinian terrorists.

Later analysis by ballistic experts of the bullet was conducted in July under oversight by the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) – including review of both IDF and PA inquiries – but was unable to clearly establish its origin.

“The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” the State Department said in a statement, underscoring that there was no evidence to suggest she was intentionally targeted by Israeli forces.

Also rejecting the US finding, PA General Prosecutor Akram al-Khatib said the finding that the bullet was badly damaged was incorrect and said Abu Akleh had been deliberately targeted. “The American statement that they found no reasons to indicate the targeting was deliberate is unacceptable,” Khatib said, stating that, “The Palestinians would continue to pursue legal action against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The court has also long been criticized for its persecution of the Jewish State while adopting pro-Palestinian policies.

“Israel was responsible for killing her and it has to be held accountable,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price, on the other hand, had said Washington “welcomes Israel’s review of this tragic incident.”