Zeena Saifi a.o.
CNN / May 24, 2022
Several shots ring out in quick succession, cutting through a clear, blue spring morning in Jenin, in the West Bank. Crack, crack, crack, crack, crack, crack, crack.
The cameraman filming the scene scrambles backwards to take cover behind a low concrete wall. Then a man cries out in Arabic: “Injured! Shireen, Shireen, oh man, Shireen! Ambulance!”
When the camera operator pans around the corner, Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh can be seen lying motionless, face down on the ground as another Palestinian reporter, Shatha Hanaysha, crouches down beside her, using a tree trunk for cover. Hanaysha reaches out and tries to rouse her as gunshots continue. There’s no response. Both women are wearing helmets and blue protective vests marked “Press.”
In the moments that follow, a man in a white T-shirt makes several attempts to move Abu Akleh, but is forced back repeatedly by gunfire. Finally, after a few long minutes, he manages to drag her body from the street.
The shaky video, filmed by Al-Jazeera cameraman Majdi Banura, captures the scene when Abu Akleh, a 51-year-old Palestinian-American was killed by a bullet to the head at around 6:30 a.m. on May 11. She had been standing with a group of journalists near the entrance of Jenin refugee camp, where they had come to cover an Israeli raid. While the footage does not show Abu Akleh being shot, eyewitnesses told CNN that they believe Israeli forces on the same street fired deliberately on the reporters in a targeted attack. All of the journalists were wearing protective blue vests that identified them as members of the news media.
“We stood in front of the Israeli military vehicles for about five to ten minutes before we made moves to ensure they saw us. And this is a habit of ours as journalists, we move as a group and we stand in front of them so they know we are journalists, and then we start moving,” Hanaysha told CNN, describing their cautious approach toward the Israeli army convoy, before the gunfire began.
When Abu Akleh was shot, Hanaysha said she was in shock. She couldn’t understand what was happening. After Abu Akleh dropped to the ground, Hanaysha thought she might have stumbled. But when she looked down at the reporter she had idolized since childhood, it was clear she wasn’t breathing. Blood was pooling under her head.
“As soon as she [Shireen] fell, I honestly wasn’t comprehending that she [was shot] … I was hearing the sound of bullets, but I wasn’t comprehending that they were coming at us. Honestly, the whole time I wasn’t understanding,” she said.
“I thought they were shooting so we stayed back, I didn’t think they were trying to kill us.”
On the day of the shooting, Israeli military spokesperson Ran Kochav told Army Radio that Abu Akleh had been “filming and working for a media outlet amidst armed Palestinians. They’re armed with cameras, if you’ll permit me to say so,” according to The Times of Israel.
The Israeli military says it is not clear who fired the fatal shot. In a preliminary inquiry, the army said there was a possibility Abu Akleh was hit either by indiscriminate Palestinian gunfire, or by an Israeli sniper positioned about 200 meters (about 656 feet) away in an exchange of fire with Palestinian gunmen — though neither Israel nor anyone else has provided evidence showing armed Palestinians within a clear line of fire from Abu Akleh.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said on May 19 that it had not yet decided whether to pursue a criminal investigation into Abu Akleh’s death. On Monday, the Israeli military’s top lawyer, Major General Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, said in a speech that under the military’s policy, a criminal investigation is not automatically launched if a person is killed in the “midst of an active combat zone,” unless there is credible and immediate suspicion of a criminal offense. United States lawmakers, the United Nations and the international community have all called for an independent probe.
But an investigation by CNN offers new evidence — including two videos of the scene of the shooting — that there was no active combat, nor any Palestinian militants, near Abu Akleh in the moments leading up to her death. Videos obtained by CNN, corroborated by testimony from eight eyewitnesses, an audio forensic analyst and an explosive weapons expert, suggest that Abu Akleh was shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.
The footage shows a calm scene before the reporters came under fire in the outskirts of Jenin refugee camp, near the main Awdeh roundabout. Hanaysha, four other journalists and three local residents said that it had been a normal morning in Jenin, home to about 345,000 people — 11,400 of whom live in the camp. Many were on their way to work or school, and the street was relatively quiet.
There was a frisson of excitement as the veteran journalist, a household name across the Arab world for her coverage of Israel and the Palestinian territories, arrived to report on the raid. About a dozen or so men, some dressed in sweats and flip-flops, had gathered to watch Abu Akleh and her colleagues at work. They were milling around chatting, some smoking cigarettes, others filming the scene on their phones.
In one 16-minute cellphone video shared with CNN, the man filming walks toward the spot where the journalists had gathered, zooming in on the Israeli armored vehicles parked in the distance, and says: “Look at the snipers.” Then, when a teenager peers tentatively up the street, he shouts: “Don’t kid around … you think it’s a joke? We don’t want to die. We want to live.”
Israeli raids on the Jenin refugee camp have become a regular occurrence since early April, in the wake of several attacks by Palestinians that left Israelis and foreigners dead. Some of the suspected assailants of those attacks were from Jenin, according to the Israeli military. Residents say the raids often lead to injuries and deaths. On Saturday, a 17-year-old Palestinian was killed and an 18-year-old was critically injured by Israeli fire during a raid, the Palestinian Ministry of Health said.
Salim Awad, the 27-year-old Jenin camp resident who filmed the 16-minute video, told CNN that there were no armed Palestinians or any clashes in the area, and he hadn’t expected there to be gunfire, given the presence of journalists nearby.
“There was no conflict or confrontations at all. We were about 10 guys, give or take, walking around, laughing and joking with the journalists,” he said. “We were not afraid of anything. We didn’t expect anything would happen, because when we saw journalists around, we thought it’d be a safe area.”
But the situation changed rapidly. Awad said shooting broke out about seven minutes after he arrived at the scene. His video captures the moment that shots were fired at the four journalists — Abu Akleh, Hanaysha, another Palestinian journalist, Mujahid al-Saadi, and AlJazeera producer Ali al-Samoudi, who was injured in the gunfire — as they walked toward the Israeli vehicles. In the footage, Abu Akleh can be seen turning away from the barrage. The footage shows a direct line of sight towards the Israeli convoy.
“We saw around four or five military vehicles on that street with rifles sticking out of them and one of them shot Shireen. We were standing right there, we saw it. When we tried to approach her, they shot at us. I tried to cross the street to help, but I couldn’t,” Awad said, adding that he saw that a bullet struck Abu Akleh in the gap between her helmet and protective vest, just by her ear.
A 16-year-old, who was among the group of men and boys on the street, told CNN that there were “no shots fired, no stone throwing, nothing,” before Abu Akleh was shot. He said that the journalists had told them not to follow as they walked toward Israeli forces, so he stayed back. When the gunfire broke out, he said he ducked behind a car on the road, three meters away, where he watched the moment she was killed. The teenager shared a video with CNN, filmed at 6:36 a.m., just after the journalists left the scene for the hospital, which showed the five Israeli army vehicles driving slowly past the spot where Abu Akleh died. The convoy then turns left before leaving the camp via the roundabout.
CNN reviewed a total of 11 videos showing the scene and the Israeli military convoy from different angles — before, during and after Abu Akleh was killed. Eyewitnesses who were filming when the journalist was shot were also in the line of fire and pulled back when the gunfire started, so do not capture the moment she is hit with the bullet.
The visual evidence reviewed by CNN includes a body camera video released by the Israeli military, which captures soldiers running through a narrow alleyway, holding M16 assault rifles, and variants, as they spill out onto the street where the armored vehicles are parked. An Israeli military source told CNN that both sides were firing M16 and M4 style assault rifles that day.
In the videos, five Israeli vehicles can be seen lined up in a row on the same road where Abu Akleh was killed, to the south. The vehicle closest to the journalists, emblazoned with a white number one, and the vehicle furthest away, marked with the number five, are both positioned perpendicular across the street. Toward the rear of the vehicles, directly above the numbers, is a narrow rectangular opening in the exterior of the vehicle.
The Israeli military referenced such an opening in a statement about its initial investigation into Abu Akleh’s shooting, saying that the journalist may have been hit by an Israeli soldier shooting from a “designated firing hole in an IDF vehicle using a telescopic scope,” during an exchange of fire. Several eyewitnesses told CNN that they saw sniper rifles sticking out of the openings before the shooting began, but that it was not preceded by any other gunfire.
Jamal Huwail, a professor at the Arab American University in Jenin, who helped drag Abu Akleh’s lifeless body from the road, said he believed the shots were coming from one of the Israeli vehicles, which he described as a “new model which had an opening for snipers,” because of the elevation and direction of the bullets.
“They were shooting directly at the journalists,” Huwail said.
Huwail, a former parliamentarian and member of the Palestinian Fatah Party in Jenin, first met Abu Akleh two decades ago, when Israel launched a major military operation in the camp, destroying more than 400 homes and displacing a quarter of its population. When he spoke with the journalist briefly that morning of May 11 at the Awdeh roundabout, she had showed him a video of one of their early interviews from 2002. The next time he saw her up close, she was dead.
In videos of the dawn army raid on Jenin camp earlier in the morning, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants can be seen battling each other with M16 assault rifles and variants, according to Chris Cobb-Smith, an explosive weapons expert. That means both sides would have been shooting 5.56-millimeter bullets. To trace the bullet that killed Abu Akleh to the barrel of a specific gun would likely require a joint Israeli-Palestinian probe, since the Palestinians have the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, while CNN’s investigation suggests the Israelis have the gun. None is immediately forthcoming. While Israel weighs whether to launch a criminal investigation, the Palestinian Authority has ruled out collaborating with the Israelis on any investigation.
A senior Israeli security official flatly denied to CNN on May 18 that Israeli troops killed Abu Akleh intentionally. The official spoke under the condition of anonymity to discuss details about an investigation that remains formally open.
“In no way would the IDF ever target a civilian, especially a member of the press,” the official told CNN.
“An IDF soldier would never fire an M16 on automatic. They shoot bullet by bullet,” the official said, in contrast with Israel’s assertion that Palestinian militants were firing “recklessly and indiscriminately” while its soldiers conducted the raid in Jenin.
In a statement emailed to CNN, the IDF said it was conducting an investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh. It “calls on the Palestinian Authority to cooperate with a joint forensic examination with American representatives to conclusively determine the source of the tragic death.”
And added, “assertions regarding the source of the fire that killed Ms. Abu Akleh must be carefully made and backed by hard evidence. This is what the IDF is striving to achieve.”
Even without access to the bullet that hit Abu Akleh, there are ways to determine who killed Abu Akleh by analyzing the type of gunfire, the sound of the shots and the marks left by the bullets at the scene.
Cobb-Smith, a security consultant and British army veteran, told CNN he believed Abu Akleh was killed in discrete shots — not a burst of automatic gunfire. To reach that conclusion, he looked at imagery obtained by CNN, which show markings the bullets left on the tree where Abu Akleh fell and Hanaysha was taking cover.
“The number of strike marks on the tree where Shireen was standing proves this wasn’t a random shot, she was targeted,” Cobb-Smith told CNN, adding that, in sharp contrast, the majority of gunfire from Palestinians captured on camera that day were “random sprays.”
As evidence, he pointed to two videos that showed Palestinian gunmen firing haphazardly down alleyways in different parts of Jenin. The videos were circulated by the office of Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and Israel’s foreign ministry, with a voiceover in Arabic saying: “They’ve hit one — they’ve hit a soldier. He’s lying on the ground.”
Because no Israeli soldiers were reported killed on May 11, Bennett’s office said the video suggested that “Palestinian terrorists were the ones who shot the journalist.” CNN geolocated the videos shared by Bennett’s office to the south of the camp, more than 300 meters, or 1,000 feet, away from Abu Akleh. The coordinates of the two locations, which were verified using Mapillary, a crowdsourced street imagery platform, and footage of the area filmed by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, demonstrate that the shooting in the videos couldn’t be the same volley of gunfire that hit Abu Akleh and her producer, Ali al-Samoudi. CNN was also unable to verify independently when the footage was filmed.
According to the Israeli army’s initial inquiry, at the time of Abu Akleh’s death, an Israeli sniper was 200 meters away from her. CNN asked Robert Maher, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Montana State University, who specializes in forensic audio analysis, to assess the footage of Abu Akleh’s shooting and estimate the distance between the gunman and the cameraman, taking into account the rifle being used by the Israeli forces.
The video that Maher analyzed captures two volleys of gunfire; eyewitnesses say Abu Akleh was hit in the second barrage, a series of seven sharp “cracks.” The first “crack” sound, the ballistic shockwave of the bullet, is followed approximately 309 milliseconds later by the relatively quiet “bang” of the muzzle blast, according to Maher. “That would correspond to a distance of something between 177 and 197 meters,” or 580 and 646 feet, he said in an email to CNN, which corresponds almost exactly with the Israeli sniper’s position.
At 200 meters, Cobb-Smith said that there was “no chance” that random firing would result in three or four shots hitting in such a tight configuration. “From the strike marks on the tree, it appears that the shots, one of which hit Shireen, came from down the street from the direction of the IDF troops. The relatively tight grouping of the rounds indicate Shireen was intentionally targeted with aimed shots and not the victim of random or stray fire,” the firearms expert told CNN.
The tree is now referred to in Jenin as the “journalist tree” and has become a makeshift shrine to Abu Akleh, with photographs of the beloved reporter taped to the trunk and Palestinian kaffiyeh scarves draped from its branches.
Awad, one of the Jenin residents who inadvertently captured Abu Akleh’s killing on camera, said the first time he saw her in person was in 2002, when she was covering the Intifada, or uprising, in Jenin. “She is of course loved by so many, but she has a very special memory in our camp specifically because of the work she has done here. The people here are very sad for her loss,” he said.
Last month, Abu Akleh celebrated her birthday in Jenin, when she was there to cover an Israeli miltary raid, her longtime colleague, cameraman Majdi Banura, recalled. Banura and Abu Akleh started at Al-Jazeera on the same day 25 years ago, and spent much of their careers out in the field together.
Banura is still reeling from having seen Abu Akleh, whom he had filmed countless times before, die in front of his own eyes. But when the gunfire broke out, he knew he had to continue rolling, saying that it was important to have a “continuous record” of her killing.
“To be honest, as I was filming, I had hoped that she will be alive, but I knew seeing her motionless she had been killed,” Banura said.
“Her picture doesn’t leave my life and memory, everything I say or do or touch, I see her.”
CNN’s Eliza Mackintosh in London wrote and reported. Zeena Saifi reported from Abu Dhabi, Celine Alkhaldi from Amman and Kareem Khadder from Jerusalem. Katie Polglase and Gianluca Mezzofiore reported from London. Richard Allen Greene, Abeer Salman, Hadas Gold and Atika Shubert contributed to this report. Design and visual editing by Natalie Croker and Henrik Pettersson