JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military on Monday announced the long-awaited results of its investigation into the shooting death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, saying there was a “high probability” that a Israeli soldier mistakenly killed her during a raid in the occupied West Bank last May.
This is the closest Israel has come to accepting responsibility for the shooting. But in a report that appeared to raise as many questions as it sought to answer, the military revealed no new evidence to support its claim that the Palestinian-American journalist could have been killed by Palestinian gunfire during a battle between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops. He also said no one would be punished for the shooting.
The findings were unlikely to resolve an issue that has aggravated already strained relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinian officials and Abu Akleh’s family have accused the army of evading responsibility for his assassination.
“Our family is not surprised by this result because it is obvious to anyone that Israeli war criminals cannot investigate their own crimes. However, we remain deeply hurt, frustrated and disappointed,” his family said in a statement.
Abu Akleh, a 51-year-old Palestinian-American, was killed while covering an Israeli raid on Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank on May 11. She had covered the West Bank for Al Jazeera for two decades and was a well-known face across the Arab world.
In a briefing with reporters, a senior Israeli military official said there was a ‘very high probability’ that Abu Akleh was mistakenly shot by an Israeli soldier positioned inside an armored vehicle who thought he was targeting an activist.
“He misidentified her,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with military briefing guidelines. “His real-time reports…absolutely indicate misidentification.”
“We know he fired, but it could very well be happening from another fire,” he added.
Jenin is known as a stronghold of Palestinian militantsand Israel has raided there almost every night since a series of deadly attacks inside Israel earlier this year, some of which were carried out by assailants from the area.
Repeating previous Israeli claims, the military official said the soldiers had been under continuous fire for almost an hour from several directions before Abu Akleh was shot dead. The army released several videos showing Palestinian militants firing automatic weapons and soldiers under fire that day.
But the military has provided no evidence to support its claim that a fierce gunfight was in progress when Abu Akleh was shot. Amateur videos as well as eyewitness accounts showed no evidence of militants in the vicinity and the area appeared calm for several minutes before it was shot down.
It was also unclear how Abu Akleh, who wore a helmet and vest marked “press” at the time, could be mistaken for an activist. The official only said that the soldier’s vision from inside the vehicle was “very limited”, causing Abu Akleh to be misidentified in a split-second decision.
He said the findings of the investigation were handed over to the chief military prosecutor, who was satisfied with them and decided not to open a criminal investigation. This means that no one will be blamed for his death.
Critics have long accused the military of doing a poor job of investigating wrongdoing by its troops. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem accused the army of ‘laundering’, while Abu Akleh’s family and the Palestinian Authority both called for the case to be referred to court Hague International Criminal Court. The ICC has opened an investigation into possible war crimes by Israel in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, dismissed the announcement as “another Israeli attempt to escape responsibility for his murder”.
He said all the evidence proves that “Israel is the culprit, that it killed Shireen, and that it must be held accountable for its crime.”
The PA, Abu Akleh’s family and Al Jazeera accused Israel of intentionally killing Abu Akleh, while a series of investigations by international media, including the Associated Press, found that Israeli troops most likely fired the fatal bullet. United States concluded that an Israeli soldier probably killed her by mistakebut she did not explain how she came to this conclusion.
Al Jazeera’s local bureau chief Walid Al-Omari said Monday’s report was “clearly an attempt to circumvent the opening of a criminal investigation”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called the Israeli findings “late and incomplete”.
“They provided no name for Shireen Abu Akleh’s killer and no information other than her own testimony that the killing was a mistake,” said Sherif Mansour, the group’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “It does not provide the answers – by any measure of transparency or accountability – that his family and colleagues deserve.”
Israel has previously said she was killed in a complex battle with Palestinian militants and that only forensic analysis of the bullet could confirm whether it was fired by an Israeli soldier or a Palestinian militant. However, an analysis of the bullet conducted by the United States last July was inconclusive, as investigators said the bullet had been badly damaged.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday: “We welcome Israel’s review of this tragic incident, and re-emphasize the importance of accountability in this matter, such as policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
The AP reconstruction of Abu Akleh’s murder supported witness accounts that she was killed by Israeli forces. Subsequent investigations by CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post came to similar conclusions, as did monitoring by the office of the UN human rights chief.
Abu Akleh rose to fame two decades ago during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli rule. She documented the harsh realities of life under Israeli military rule – now well into its sixth decade with no end in sight – for viewers in the Arab world.
The Israeli police drew widespread criticism from around the world when they beat mourners and pallbearers at his funeral in Jerusalem. An Israeli newspaper reported that a police investigation found wrongdoing by some of its officers, but said those who oversaw the event will not be seriously punished.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and built settlements where nearly 500,000 Israelis live alongside nearly 3 million Palestinians. The Palestinians want the territory to form the main part of a future state.
AP correspondents Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem, Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel and Joseph Krauss in Ottawa, Ontario, contributed to this report.