The Israeli army admitted on Monday that it is "highly probable" Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by an Israeli soldier.
The official probe found that Abu Akleh was likely shot by an Israeli soldier who was using a telescopic scope while under fire and misidentified her as an armed Palestinian gunman. The Israel Defense Forces maintains it cannot rule out the possibility that Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian gunfire, but it admits it is more likely an Israeli soldier was responsible.
Aviv Kochavi, the Israeli Army's Chief of Staff, called Abu Akleh's death "an unfortunate incident," adding that it occurred "during operational activity to thwart Palestinian terror."
The Israeli Military Advocate General's Office said it would not open an investigation into any soldiers involved in the incident as "there is no suspicion that a criminal offense was committed."
As part of the investigation, the army analyzed all the relevant information that was at its disposal – including cellular data location, audio files, video clips and data published by various media outlets – and isolated the area where Abu Akleh was present.
According to the findings, Palestinian gunmen standing near Abu Akleh fired towards an Israeli armored vehicle. One of the soldiers believed Abu Akleh was part of the armed militants who fired at them, and he likely shot at her through a telescopic scope, the report argues.
"It cannot be unequivocally determined who shot her," a high ranking Israeli army official said, "It needs to be said that there were both IDF soldiers and Palestinians at the scene. The most likely scenario is that a soldier mistakenly fired the shots, while he himself was being fired at. The shots were fired while they were in an armored vehicle, and the soldiers responded by firing back at numerous targets. It's possible that Shireen was accidentally shot during this."
According to the probe, none of the soldiers intended to harm the journalist. It should be noted that Abu Akleh was wearing a helmet and a vest with the word “PRESS,” and was carrying a camera. The IDF described the situation in which the soldier who fired found himself at the time of the exchange of fire. “The area was a difficult one, firing from windows, from rooftops, and the soldiers were at risk, with precise fire and peripheral fire directed at them,” explained one senior officer.
He added that the soldier apparently fired at Abu Akleh from an aperture in the armored car in which he was traveling, when the journalist was standing behind a tree, and explained that even now the soldier can’t say with certainty that he shot her, because he thought he had hit one of the armed men. “He fired where he intended,” explained the senior officer. “He fired a total of about 20 bullets, 10 of which were to the area where Shireen was standing.”
In response to the army's statement, Deputy Knesset Speaker and head of the Joint List party Ahmad Tibi said: "Today you should re-read all the angry comments from the day [Abu Akleh] was killed. And what about the false messages of the army spokesmen and government officials?" Tibi also called for an external investigation so "the army does not grant automatic immunity to those who shot."
Zehava Galon, head of left-wing Meretz also reacted to the army's announcement, saying that Israel is a democratic country, committed to truth and justice. "As a member of the coalition and a partner in the government, I expect all officials, the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff and the IDF spokesman to conduct an investigation. Taking responsibility is a moral and value position – and it is our duty to maintain it," she added.
In addition, the Committee to Protect Journalists called the IDF admission of guilt "late and incomplete," and stated that "Israel did not provide a name for Abu Akleh's killer, or any other information than his or her own testimony, which does not provide the answers by any measure of transparency or accountability that her family and colleagues deserve," Sherif Mansour, CPJ's coordinator added.
The family of Abu Akleh expressed their dismay at the findings in a statement, saying that Israel's report "tried to obscure the truth and avoid responsibility for killing Shireen Abu Akleh, our aunt, sister, best friend, journalist, and a Palestinian American." It said that although other investigations have found that an Israeli soldier shot the journalist, "as expected, Israel has refused to take responsibility for murdering Shireen. Our family is not surprised by this outcome since it's obvious to anyone that Israeli war criminals cannot investigate their own crimes. However, we remain deeply hurt, frustrated, and disappointed."
The family called for a "thorough, independent, and credible U.S. investigation that leads to accountability, which is the bare minimum the US government should do for one of their own citizens. We will continue to demand that the US government follow through with its stated commitments to accountability. Accountability requires action." They also said that they are pressing for a full International Criminal Court investigation and trial.
The Al Jazeera news network condemned what it decried Israel's skirting of responsibility for Abu Akleh's killing and demanded an independent, international body conduct an investigation.
"After refusing to take responsibility for more than 100 days, the Israeli occupation forces announced today the findings of its investigation that it is 'very likely' that Shireen Abu Akleh was 'accidentally' killed by an Israeli soldier in an 'unfortunate incident,'" the statement said. "Al Jazeera Media Network denounces the findings of this investigation and stresses that this elusive admission is nothing but an attempt from the IOF to evade the criminal responsibility for the killing of Shireen, which has been proven by numerous independent and international investigations."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas similarly denounced the report as "another Israeli attempt to evade responsibility for [Abu Akleh's] murder," arguing that "all the findings indicate that Israel bears full responsibility and must bear the consequences."
Abu Akleh, a veteran reporter for Qatar-based Al Jazeera and a U.S. citizen, was killed on May 11, during an Israeli military raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. At least five major international media outlets have since published detailed investigations of the case that all found Israel was likely responsible for the deadly shooting. An initial Israeli military probe, though, failed to reach a clear conclusion.
In early July, the U.S. State Department said an analysis of the bullet that killed her "could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding [its] origin." It did, however, say that Israeli soldiers were likely responsible for the killing.
"Ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged, which prevented a clear conclusion," State Department Spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that immediately drew frustration and anger from Palestinian officials, accusing Washington of siding with Israel and concealing the truth.
The U.S. Security Coordinator, the body that oversaw the examination by Israeli experts, "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… which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel."
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Abu Akleh's family called the American statement "an affront to justice that enabled Israel to avoid accountability for Shireen’s murder," adding it was "totally unacceptable."
In late July, several of the journalist's family members met with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
"If we allow Shireen’s killing to be swept under the rug, we send a message that the lives of U.S. citizens abroad don’t matter, that the lives of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation don’t matter, and that the most courageous journalists in the world, those who cover the human impact of armed conflict and violence, are expendable," the Abu Akleh family continued in a statement issued ahead of the meeting with Blinken.
Over 80 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed by Israeli security forces since the beginning of 2022. Some army officials have begun to question the military tactics being used, specifically the decision to enter city centers.
"The number of causalities influences what we see on the ground," an army official said, adding that "This year has been very violent, but our soldiers aren't trigger-happy. When we decide to risk our soldiers' lives, we don't do it without purpose. We do it carefully... I would be glad to clean out all weapons from the West Bank, but that's not the situation."