Israel, in shift, investigates possibility IDF soldier killed American journalist

Family and friends carry the coffin of Al-Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin (Amar Awad - Reuters)

Shira Rubin & Steve Hendrix

The Washington Post  /  May 12, 2022

TEL AVIV — A day after a Palestinian American journalist was killed during an Israeli raid in a West Bank city, the Israeli military said that it was investigating the possibility that the fatal shot may have been fired by one of its soldiers, according to an Israel Defense Forces official.

The official said the military was investigating three separate shooting incidents involving its soldiers after the death of the reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh, a longtime correspondent for the Al-Jazeera news channel, as well as the wounding of her producer in the Jenin Refugee Camp on Wednesday.

The acknowledgment that one of Israel’s soldiers might have been culpable marked a significant backtrack from Israel’s initial explanation for the shooting — that Abu Akleh was “most likely” hit by fire from Palestinian militants.

The IDF official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of an ongoing investigation, said that the military was looking into an exchange of gunfire between Israeli soldiers in a vehicle and one or more armed Palestinian men who he said were shooting at the vehicle. The official said that the shooting occurred on a street roughly 490 feet from the spot where Abu Akleh was killed. Of the three incidents being investigated, it was “the more probable to be involved in the death of Shireen,” the official said.

“A soldier with a rifle and a very good aiming system was shooting toward a terrorist with an M16, in very good condition, very clear picture, that was shooting on our troops. What we are checking now is the location of Shireen,” he said, adding that military investigators had taken the rifles from Israeli service members involved in the incident to have them available for ballistic testing.

In the hours following the killing of Abu Akleh, Al-Jazeera and Palestinian authorities said that Israel was responsible. Multiple witnesses interviewed by The Washington Post said there had been no exchanges of gunfire between the Israeli military and Palestinian gunmen in the area where Abu Akleh was reporting, or at the time she was shot — contradicting Israeli assertions that she was caught in crossfire.

Israel said it had requested the launch of a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority that would be monitored by U.S. officials.

On Thursday, Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh called the killing an “assassination.” He said that the Palestinian Authority has refused to cooperate with Israel in the investigation and would not hand over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh to Israeli authorities, saying it had been taken for an initial ballistics examination to Al-Najah University in Nablus.

Sheikh said that the Palestinian Authority would release the results of the investigation to Abu Akleh’s family and the public, as well as to U.S., Qatari and other relevant authorities. (Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar.)

Palestinian and Israeli authorities have not yet divulged what caliber of bullet was used in the shooting, a seemingly critical piece of evidence in determining responsibility. Rayan al-Ali, the director of Al-Najah’s Forensic Medicine Institute, said at a news conference Wednesday that an initial probe showed that the bullet was shot at “a range of more than one meter,” but that it was still not possible to determine that it was fired from the gun of an Israeli soldier.

Services for Abu Akleh on Thursday included a memorial gathering in Ramallah attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by a procession of thousands of mourners who carried her body toward her home in Jerusalem. Her funeral is scheduled for Friday. Abu Akleh was a Palestinian Catholic.

In Ramallah, hundreds of teary Palestinians pressed forward to touch, or just get close to, a figure who has become a beloved presence in living rooms across the region over the decades. One of her colleagues compared the emotional outpouring to the funeral of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The Biden administration, members of Congress and United Nations officials, among others, have called for an investigation into her killing.

Palestinian witnesses on the scene who spoke with The Post on Wednesday said the fighting in Jenin, during an Israeli raid on the town, was far from where Abu Akleh was stationed and had ended well before she was hit.

Ali al-Samudi, the producer, who was wounded in the back, told The Washington Post that the area where the journalist waited was “dead quiet” when individuals shots came their way. All the reporters were wearing helmets and protective vests marking them as “Press.”

Shira Rubin is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Tel Aviv

Steve Hendrix is Jerusalem bureau chief