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57 House Dems call for US probe into killing of Al Jazeera journalist

Lawmakers cast doubt on Israeli account that reporter was caught between IDF, Palestinian fire; Israeli envoy fumes that letter ignores fact IDF operated in Jenin amid terror wave

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

People gather at the Al Jazeera offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 11, 2022 following the killing of veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh who was shot dead during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen as she covered an Israeli raid on the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
People gather at the Al Jazeera offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 11, 2022 following the killing of veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh who was shot dead during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen as she covered an Israeli raid on the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Fifty-seven Democrats in the US House of Representatives on Friday called on the State Department and the FBI to launch an investigation into the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was hit in the head by gunfire during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen while covering an IDF operation in the Palestinian city of Jenin earlier this month.

The demand was made in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and FBI Director Chris Wray by a group of progressives who make up a quarter of the Democratic Party’s caucus in the House. The initiative was led by Reps. Andre Carson, Bill Pascrell and Lou Correa.

The letter was quickly condemned by Israel’s ambassador to the US, who argued that it ignored the context of Abu Akleh’s killing and implied that Israel was to blame.

In their letter, the lawmakers note reports that Abu Akleh and the other Palestinian journalists covering the IDF raid in Jenin on May 11 made their presence known to the soldiers in the area.

“The Israeli military claimed that the victims were caught between gunfire between Palestinian militants and Israeli Defense Forces. However, media and eyewitnesses had conflicting reports… that there were no clashes or shootings in the immediate area,” the House members wrote.

Addressing this claim directly in his response to the letter, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog said it was “made by parties with a particular agenda” and that “significant evidence” documents “the exchange of fire at the scene.”

“By implication, Israel is pointed at as the primary suspect in Ms. Abu Akleh’s tragic death and one that cannot be trusted to conduct an honest investigation, thereby delegitimizing Israel’s strong, credible and independent judicial system,” Herzog said.

The signatories included all members of the progressive squad — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush. Also signing on were Betty McCollum, Marie Newman, Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal, Barbara Lee, Tom Malinowski and Joaquin Castro.

A day earlier, the Haaretz daily reported that Military Police will not open an investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing, as prosecutors do not believe there is suspicion of criminal activity by the soldiers. The IDF is still investigating Abu Akleh’s death, but not through legal channels.

A military official who briefed reporters Thursday said that the IDF has identified the IDF rifle that may have fired the shot that killed Abu Akleh. However, he said that the army still needs the bullet in the Palestinian Authority’s possession in order to check it.

Herzog noted Friday that the PA continues to refuse to hand over the bullet, thus preventing the IDF from reaching a definitive conclusion. He lamented that the Democratic lawmakers made no mention of this in their letter and did not join in Jerusalem’s calls for Ramallah to comply. The PA has thus far rejected such requests, saying that they don’t trust Israeli authorities.

The Israeli ambassador said that the letter ignores Israel’s calling for an “impartial joint Israeli-Palestinian investigation with the US in an observer role.”

The State Department has already condemned Abu Akleh’s killing and has called for an investigation, but spokesman Ned Price said the US believes that Israel has “the wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive” probe, suggesting that a separate investigation would not be necessary.

But the 57 lawmakers argued that this was not sufficient, calling for a State Department-FBI probe.

“We also request the US Department of State determine whether any US laws protecting Ms. Abu Akleh, an American citizen, were violated,” they added.

For his part, Herzog highlighted that the missive ignored the events leading up to Abu Akleh’s killing, namely a deadly terror wave in Israel and the West Bank that took the lives of 19 people, with a number of the attackers originating from the Jenin area. He also noted that the IDF was operating against fighters of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the US and Israel designate as a terror organization.

“Rather than sending unconstructive messages, truth and justice would be better served by calling on the PA to give Israel access to the bullet and allow for the completion of the investigation with the US in an observer role,” Herzog concluded.

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