Though the Israeli media has long since lost interest in the subject, the global press is unyielding in probing the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on the outskirts of Jenin a month and a half ago.
Over the past few weeks, at least five investigations into the circumstances of the Al Jazeera correspondent’s death have been published in international media outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and the Associated Press.
All these investigations pointed an accusing finger at Israel as being responsible for Abu Akleh being shot dead. On Friday, a spokesperson for the United Nations human rights office said its findings showed Israeli forces had fired the bullet that killed the journalist.
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Israel, for its part, has gradually changed its assessments of the incident. On the day of Abu Akleh’s death, May 11, Israeli spokespeople tried to attribute responsibility to armed Palestinians who engaged soldiers as the latter entered the Jenin refugee camp. In the days that followed, as more details became available, the military admitted that there had in fact been shooting on both sides, and there had been shooting by a soldier from the undercover Duvdevan unit in the area where Abu Akleh was shot.
At the same time, two central arguments were put forward. First, if the journalist was hit by Israeli gunfire, it was not deliberate; and second, it was impossible to find out the truth, because the Palestinian Authority was refusing to make the bullet that was removed from Abu Akleh’s body available for a joint examination.
The incident is being examined in a probe by a Central Command team led by an officer with the rank of colonel. As Haaretz reported last month, the military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, has decided not to order a criminal investigation by the military police into the circumstances of Abu Akleh’s death for now. She stated that the incident had been a “combat event” in which there was no suspicion of a criminal offense.
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A week ago, the military announced that a senior Military Intelligence officer who specializes in technological methods was joining the investigative team. But the global press and the Biden administration in Washington remain skeptical. Both find it hard to understand why a criminal investigation is not being launched into the death of a civilian, especially a journalist who was killed in the line of duty. It’s possible that the U.S. will ask Israel for explanations and updates about the death of Abu Akleh, a U.S. citizen, in connection with Biden’s visit next month.
A decision to launch a criminal investigation would go some way toward reducing the pressure on Israel, but the military advocate general has not changed her mind. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi and other senior figures vehemently oppose a Military Police investigation in the matter, though the authority to make that decision is exclusively Tomer-Yerushalmi’s. The military has also refrained from taking an interim step, such as adding a major general in the reserves who is not subordinate to the chief of staff to the investigative team.
A short historical explanation is in order. Until 2000, the military advocate general tended to order a Military Police investigation in almost every case in which a Palestinian was killed in an incident involving soldiers. When the second intifada erupted and the number of incidents surged, the rules also changed. A probe was launched into every incident and the military advocate general chose whether to open a criminal investigation as well, mostly in cases in which women, children or foreign nationals were killed.
In 2011, after the frequency of the events declined, the military advocate general – Avichai Mendelblit at the time – issued an order to investigate every case of a death in the West Bank, with two exceptions: a clear case of the thwarting of a terror attack, or the death of an armed individual during an exchange of fire. In the Gaza Strip, where there is no direct Israeli control, the rules remain as they were in the second intifada.
When criticism of military actions in the West Bank is leveled abroad and allegations of war crimes were raised, Israel has always responded that it is capable of investigating itself. Proof of this was presented in the form of the probes it conducted, and especially the criminal investigations that were opened (though they produced a very low number of indictments).
A criminal investigation, notwithstanding the public furor it stirs over the question of support for combat troops, has an advantage over an operational probe in terms of the means that are available to it. The Military Police can make use of interrogation tactics maneuvers, wiretapping and polygraph tests. None of this has been done in this case, and probably won’t. It won’t only adversely affect the search for the truth, but also the last vestiges of trust that the international media and the U.S. administration have in Israel’s account.
Sending a signal
Another infuriating low point was reached this week in the struggle over women’s assignments in the military. According to a report in the religious weekly Besheva, soldiers from a hesder yeshiva, which combines religious studies with combat service, refused to take part in an exercise of the Nahal infantry brigade because they were placed alongside women. These soldiers, from the hesder yeshiva in Mitzpe Ramon, serve in the forward command squad of a battalion commander in the brigade.
When they learned that they were assigned to travel in a vehicle that has eight seats together with two female officers, one of whom is the battalion’s communications officer, they asked to be excused from the mission. Their commanders acceded to the request and the soldiers were not punished. There are conflicting accounts as to whether the soldiers consulted with their rabbi, Tzvi Kostiner, the head of the hesder yeshiva. Kostiner recently made the news when he called on his students to say “gays go home” when they encounter LGBTQ people.
Supporters of the soldiers defended them by saying that according to the rules for gender-equal units, a religiously observant soldier is entitled to refrain from taking part in joint activity with women if there is a reasonable fear of physical contact. But this is apparently not the case. Idit Shafran Gittleman, from the Israel Democracy Institute, told Haaretz that this refers to “contact, revealing clothing or being alone” with a female soldier. This does not appear to be the situation here, as there were enough other male soldiers in the vehicle and no one was forcing the men to sit next to the female officers.
Shafran Gittleman suspects that this was not a spontaneous initiative by the male soldiers, but a move in which rabbis were involved and that aims to send a warning signal to the military, amid an ongoing dispute over opening more units to female combat soldiers. The demands are becoming more extreme, Shafran Gittleman says, after the rule book itself underwent two hard-line amendments in accordance with past demands, and because it contains no real protection for women against discrimination.
Indeed, it’s not clear why the army capitulated to a demand of this sort, which appears to deviate from the rules, by hesder soldiers. This was the second incident within a month among units of the 162nd Division in the Southern Command. It was preceded by a humiliating event undergone by a female education officer in the Givati infantry brigade who was prevented, by the intervention of civilian rabbis, from presiding over an oath-taking ceremony for recruits at the Western Wall.
The head of Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, would do well in the near future to make the rules clear, along with spirit of democracy that is required in all the division’s units and its commanders.