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U.N. rights body says Israeli soldiers killed American journalist in West Bank

Priests and friends mourn over the body of veteran Al Jazeera Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, who was shot dead as she covered an Israeli army raid on the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp, on May 11, 2022, before her body was transferred for burial from a hospital in Jenin.  (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Shira Rubin and Kareem Fahim Washington Post

TEL AVIV, Israel – A veteran Palestinian American journalist was killed by Israeli forces while covering a military raid in the occupied West Bank, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Friday, summarizing the results of the office’s investigation into the fatal May shooting of Shireen Abu Akleh, a correspondent for Al Jazeera.

“All information we have gathered – including official information from the Israeli military and the Palestinian Attorney-General – is consistent with the finding that the shots that killed Abu Akleh and injured her colleague Ali Sammoudi came from Israeli Security Forces,” the spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, said in a statement.

Abu Akleh was not shot “from indiscriminate firing by armed Palestinians, as initially claimed by Israeli authorities,” she added.

A correspondent with decades of experience for Al Jazeera news network covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abu Akleh was fatally shot in the head early on the morning on May 11, while reporting on an Israeli raid on the West Bank city of Jenin. Witnesses said the fire appeared to come from a convoy of Israeli military vehicles, but Israeli officials initially said she was likely killed by Palestinian gunfire, before reversing course and saying it was possible she had unintentionally been shot by an Israeli soldier.

The U.N. conclusions – which included the finding that “several single, seemingly well-aimed bullets” were fired at Abu Akleh and three other journalists from the direction of Israeli forces – mirrored the conclusions of several independent investigations, including a review by the Washington Post, which found that Israeli troops likely fired the fatal shot.

An Israeli military statement Friday did not directly address the U.N. findings but said Israel had continued to investigate the shooting and concluded that “Abu Akleh was not intentionally shot by an IDF soldier and that it is not possible to determine whether she was killed by a Palestinian gunman shooting indiscriminately in her area or inadvertently by an IDF soldier.”

The statement blamed the Palestinian Authority for denying Israeli requests to share the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, saying it was “telling of their motives.”

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, in a separate statement, called the U.N. investigation “unfounded.”

The U.N. findings – along with the investigations by the Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN and the investigative group Bellingcat – added to pressure on the White House to address Abu Akleh’s killing, just weeks before President Joe Biden is scheduled to travel to Israel.

On Thursday, 24 U.S. senators sent a letter to Biden urging that the United States be “directly involved in investigating” Abu Akleh’s death. The letter, citing a lack of progress toward the establishment of an independent investigation – and the fact that Abu Akleh was an American – said the U.S. government “has an obligation to ensure that a comprehensive, impartial, and open investigation into her shooting death is conducted.”

The United States has said it is not currently conducting an investigation but has made clear to both Israeli and Palestinian officials its call for “through, transparent and impartial investigations” into the killing.

On the day Abu Akleh was killed, Israel Defense Forces spokesman spokesperson Ran Kochav first acknowledged the incident in a 7:45 a.m. tweet, saying: “The possibility that journalists were injured, possibly by Palestinian gunfire, is being investigated.”

Later that morning, he told Army Radio that it was “likely” that a Palestinian gunman was responsible. By the end of the day, Defense Minister Benny Gantz walked back those assertions and said an Israeli soldier could have also been responsible for firing the fatal shot.

A week after the killing, however, the army said that it had not found evidence of criminal conduct in the killing. As a result, officials said, there would be no investigation of the shooting by military police – a process that would have resulted in the public release of the investigation’s findings.

“More than six weeks after the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and injury of her colleague Ali al-Sammoudi in Jenin on 11 May 2022, it is deeply disturbing that Israeli authorities have not conducted a criminal investigation,” the statement from the U.N. Human Rights Office said.

Palestinians and human rights workers have said for years that Israel’s military justice system creates an atmosphere of impunity for soldiers suspected of violent crimes, including fatal killings, of Palestinians.

The last time an Israeli soldier was prosecuted in a military court was in 2016. The soldier, a combat medic, was captured on video fatally shooting a Palestinian assailant who lay wounded on the ground. The Israeli soldier, who was 19 years old at the time, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, spurring outrage nearly across the political spectrum, from Palestinians who said it was a mock trial to many Israelis who argued a soldier in a difficult combat situation could not be prosecuted. Others said that the controversy around the trial itself reflected the deep-seated normalization of Israel’s violent occupation of Palestinians.

Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli lawyer who has represented Palestinian families whose relatives have been killed by Israeli soldiers, said he believed that international pressure in Abu Akleh’s case would only make the possibility of a thorough and transparent investigation less likely. The army, since the beginning, was committed to protecting its institutional norms, in which “soldier have gotten used to the fact that they will never face punishment,” he said.

“The army is betting on the fact that diplomats, and the others pushing for an investigation, will give up soon enough,” he added.

The Post’s examination – based on a review of five dozen videos, social media posts and photos of the event, two physical inspections of the area and two independent acoustic analyses – found that an Israeli soldier likely shot and killed Abu Akleh. The audio analyses of what was likely the fatal gunshots pointed to one person shooting from an estimated distance that nearly matched the span between the journalists and the IDF convoy.

The Post’s review found no evidence of activity of armed Palestinians in the immediate vicinity of the place where Abu Akleh, and a group of other journalists, were standing before the killing.

“Perpetrators must be held to account,” said the U.N. statement.