Palestinian reporter’s death highlights weakness of Israeli army investigations

Shireen Abu Akleh (Twitter Post)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  June 14, 2022

Fatal shooting of Shireen Abu Akleh in May raises fresh concerns over military inquiries into deaths of Palestinians.

In August 2020, 23-year-old Dalia Samoudi was killed when a bullet came through the window of her home in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank, during an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) raid on a nearby house.

Al Jazeera reported on the incident, in which witnesses said she had been killed by an IDF soldier firing in the direction of Palestinians throwing stones. Two years later, the television network would report on the death of its longtime correspondent, Shireen Abu Aqleh, in nearly the same spot.

Again, witnesses said the deadly fire came from Israeli soldiers – although this time only journalists and IDF personnel were present. Abu Aqleh, 51, who was wearing a protective vest and helmet marked “press”, was shot below the ear.

Despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence suggesting the IDF was responsible for the two women’s deaths, in both cases Israel initially blamed Palestinian militants.

“I was standing next to her when it happened,” said Samoudi, 30. “Dalia was feeding the baby. She went to shut the window to shut the teargas out.

“The Palestinians in the street were not carrying guns. It is very clear what happened. But two years later, the investigation is still going on and I have no idea what [the Israelis] are doing.”

According to army data released under Israel’s freedom of information act and analyzed by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, Israeli forces have near-total impunity from prosecution in cases in which Palestinians were harmed by IDF soldiers.

Only five (7.2%) of all internal military investigations opened in 2019-20 resulted in criminal indictments, and just 2% of the complaints the army received resulted in the prosecution of a suspect. In 2017-18, the chance of a prosecution was 0.7%. And although 47 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the first quarter of 2022 – a fivefold rise compared with the same time period in 2021 – the total number of investigations opened by the IDF is, on average, decreasing each year.

The figures show the army’s investigative mechanisms were not fit for purpose, said Dan Owen, a Yesh Din researcher.

“By definition, the military cannot do a proper job because it is investigating itself. Sentences are usually for things like illegal use of force or incorrect handling of a weapon, rather than murder or manslaughter, and soldiers get to serve their time for a few months doing menial labour on military bases,” he said.

“Every year we see the army has slightly better data, and there’s a slightly better chance if a Palestinian files a complaint it will lead to an indictment and be processed more quickly. But the overall purpose of this system is not justice: it is to repel internal and international criticism.”

The IDF says it opens initial operational investigations in all cases in the West Bank in which a Palestinian is killed, unless the death occurred in a combat environment. Based on those findings, and in accordance with Israeli law, the Military Advocate decides whether a criminal investigation is merited.

“A death of a Palestinian in [the West Bank] will generally raise presumption of suspicion of criminal activity, which would trigger an immediate criminal investigation … If there is no immediate criminal investigation, we wait for the results from the operational examination and collect additional materials, and then reassess whether there is a reasonable suspicion of a crime,” said a senior official in the Israeli legal system.

In the case of Palestinian American citizen Abu Aqleh, the Israeli army has said because the journalist was killed in an “active combat situation”, an immediate criminal investigation would not be launched, although an operational inquiry would continue. Israel has also criticized the Palestinian Authority’s decision not to cooperate in a joint investigation, or hand over evidence, such as the bullet that killed her.

The Biden administration and UN security council have called for a transparent investigation. In late May, Abu Aqleh’s death was added to a legal complaint being filed at the international criminal court, arguing that Israeli security forces had been systematically targeting Palestinian journalists in violation of international humanitarian law.

According to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, 30 journalists have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israeli fire since 2000 but no indictments against soldiers have ever been filed.

“It’s not often we get a case as high profile as Shireen,” Owen said. “Unless a killing was caught on camera without any doubt whatsoever who committed it, it is highly unlikely it will be investigated … Saying that, our data shows time and again that even when the army does investigate, it does not lead to justice.”

Despite knowing the low odds of success, Samoudi’s husband, Bassam, refuses to give up on the IDF investigation into her death. He is still hoping for answers into how and why his wife died.

“The evidence is so strong. Of course I am worried about the small rate of convictions but there can only be one outcome in this case,” he said. “This is the only option I have, so I have to use it.”

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian