Israeli leaders said that a leading Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, killed amid clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen during an IDF raid in Jenin early Wednesday, had likely died from Palestinian gunfire.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday morning that “according to the information we have gathered, it appears likely that armed Palestinians — who were firing indiscriminately at the time — were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz elaborated later Wednesday that preliminary findings showed “no [Israeli] gunfire was directed at the journalist” whereas “we have seen footage of indiscriminate shooting by Palestinian terrorists, which is likely to have hit the journalist.”
Al Jazeera correspondent Abu Akleh, 51, a Palestinian-American, was shot in the head while covering the Israeli operation in Jenin, which has seen high tensions in recent days. In footage from the scene after she was shot, Abu Akleh can be seen wearing a press vest and helmet.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called Abu Akleh’s death an “execution” and “an ugly crime.”
But Bennett pushed back on claims by Palestinian authorities that she was killed by fire from Israeli security forces. Bennett said Abbas was “throwing blame at Israel without any basis.”
He called on the PA officials to cooperate with a joint investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, which he said they were refusing to do.
Bennett claimed that Palestinians in Jenin could be heard during the raid “boasting, ‘We hit a soldier, he’s lying on the ground.'” The Foreign Ministry later circulated video purportedly showing that moment.
But, Bennett continued, “no IDF soldier was injured, which increases the possibility that Palestinian terrorists were the ones who shot the journalist.”
Speaking later in the Knesset, Bennett said that IDF troops encountered uncontrolled and indiscriminate gunfire in Jenin, and responded with “targeted and responsible” gunfire “as accurately as possible.” Bennett said that Abu Akleh’s death was “regrettable,” and that without a full investigation “the truth will not be revealed.”
Senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh denied Israel had ever reached out about conducting an investigation. “We deny what the Prime Minister of the occupation government said about sending a missive to the Palestinian Authority about conducting an investigation into her assassination,” he tweeted.
Palestinian health officials also reported that another journalist, Ali Samoudi, who works for the Al-Quds newspaper, was shot in the back. He was said to be in stable condition. Samoudi said the military’s suggestion that they were shot by Palestinians was a “complete lie.”
According to the Israeli military, troops entered Jenin’s flashpoint refugee camp and the nearby town of Burqin to arrest terror suspects. After a wave of deadly terror attacks in Israeli cities since March, some of which were carried out by Palestinians from the Jenin area, soldiers have stepped up their raids in the West Bank in an effort to tamp down the violence.
“During the operation in Jenin refugee camp, suspects fired an enormous amount of gunfire at troops and hurled explosive devices. [Israeli] forces fired back,” the Israeli army said in a statement.
“Hits were identified,” it added, though there were no reports of Palestinian casualties beyond the two journalists.
Defense Minister Gantz said in the Knesset Wednesday afternoon that initial findings from the incident showed that no IDF fire had been directed toward the Al Jazeera correspondent, and that an investigation is ongoing. He said the army’s findings would be shared with the United States and with the PA.
“I would like to express my sorrow at the loss of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The State of Israel values the protection of human life above all, as well as freedom of press. IDF troops would never intentionally harm members of the press, and any attempt to imply otherwise is baseless,” said Gantz.
“Preliminary findings from the investigation conducted by the IDF in the last several hours indicate that no gunfire was directed at the journalist – however the investigation is ongoing,” said Gantz. “On the other hand, we have seen footage of indiscriminate shooting by Palestinian terrorists, which is likely to have hit the journalist. We will communicate our findings in a clear and transparent manner to our American friends, as well as to the Palestinian Authority.”
Gantz added: “I have offered the Palestinians to conduct a joint investigation and to share our findings. I sent a clear message to Mahmoud Abbas today, that our responsibility as leaders is to maintain security, to conduct ourselves in a way that will prevent further violence and bloodshed and to uncover the truth.”
Gantz said Israel had communicated with additional countries and officials, including Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based. “We expressed that the findings at this time indicate that there is a reasonable chance that the journalist was shot by Palestinian armed terrorists. This being said, we will conduct an in-depth and comprehensive investigation and deliver our findings to them. We are currently in the midst of an ongoing investigation of the incident — it is important that we uncover the truth about how it unfolded.”
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar charged that “the Palestinians, as usual, are rushing into a blood libel against the IDF.”
Sa’ar said that initial data offers “indications” that Abu Akleh was shot by armed Palestinians, and not by the Israeli military, and that “the death of every human is tragic.”
“The Palestinians refused Israel’s offer of a joint investigation, and one has to wonder why,” Sa’ar said in a statement. “I think they have refused because they have no interest in revealing the truth.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also said Israel had offered the Palestinians a joint pathological investigation into “the sad death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.”
“Journalists must be protected in conflict zones and we all have a responsibility to get to the truth,” Lapid said in a statement.
Al Jazeera accused Israeli soldiers of “deliberately targeting and killing” Abu Akleh “in cold blood.”
“We call on the international community to condemn and hold the Israeli occupation forces accountable,” the Qatar-based broadcaster said.
Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, a member of the Israeli government coalition, condemned Abu Akleh’s killing and called for an immediate investigation, but did not cast blame for her death.
The Islamist party called for “the establishment of an international investigative committee into the circumstances” of Abu Akleh’s death, “stressing that the press and journalists should be protected in accordance with all laws.”
Ra’am also said it was canceling a scheduled press conference for Wednesday morning in regard to its ongoing membership in the government in light of the incident.
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi praised Abu Akleh as a “model for journalistic bravery,” and blamed the IDF for her death.
“Once again, army soldiers are harming journalists and their important work, and not taking into account their presence on the ground,” Tibi said in a statement. He dismissed the IDF’s promise to investigate the incident as “provocative, false and especially outrageous on this difficult morning.”
MK Mossi Raz of the left-wing Meretz party, also a member of the coalition, blamed “the occupation” for Abu Akleh’s death.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked responded to Raz, saying it was not the “occupation” but rather “false Palestinian propaganda.”
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej, also of Meretz, tweeted that “the game of accusations regarding the national identity of the bullet that hit her” will not bring Abu Akleh back. Frej wrote that regardless of the identity of the shooter, the real issue is “the reality in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which time and time again leads to the deaths of innocent civilians.”
Agencies contributed to this report.