The IDF announced that investigation into the death of Shireen Abu Akleh in May affirmed that the veteran Al Jazeera journalist was likely to have been unintentionally shot by an Israeli soldier – but was not deliberately targeted.
By Erin Viner
“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 on the findings of the probe.
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.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Israel regretted Abu Akleh’s death, but that the Israeli military investigation had concluded there was no intent to harm her, and he gave full backing to the IDF.
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.
Washington has closely been monitoring the incident, as Abu Akleh was a Palestinian-American.
“We welcome Israel’s review of this tragic incident” which “stated there is a high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire,” said US State Department Spokesman Ned Price.
“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,” Spokesman Price went on to say, adding, “Our thoughts remain with the Abu Akleh family as they grieve this tremendous loss – and with the many others worldwide who brought Shireen and her news reports into their homes for more than two decades.”
Abu Akleh’s relatives issued a response saying they were “deeply hurt, frustrated and disappointed” by the Israeli findings and claimed the country “tried to obscure the truth and avoid responsibility” for her death.
Local Al Jazeera’s local bureau chief Walid al-Omari was cited by Reuters as asserting Israel’s conclusions of the incident were an attempt to avoid an independent criminal investigation. “It is clear that they are trying to perpetuate ambiguity and deception on the one hand, while at the same time clear themselves of wrongdoing by claiming that there was an exchange of fire,” he said. “These are all lies, because all the accounts and videos and witnesses disprove their claims.”
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 of during the IDF raid.
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.
Minister Gantz added that IDF forces will continue counterterrorism operations to “end the deadly wave of terror and restore security to the citizens of Israel.”
Over 1,000 bullets have been 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.