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Analysis

Expert says journalist’s death will fuel revenge attacks, no matter the explanation

The diplomatic crisis over the death of a Palestinian-American reporter is solvable, eventually, but further radicalization of those hostile to Israel is already underway

Emanuel Fabian

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Palestinians hold a poster displaying veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, who was shot dead during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen as she covered an IDF raid on the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp on May 11, 2022, in the West Bank city of Hebron. The poster reads in Arabic, "the Martyrdom of Journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh". (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
Palestinians hold a poster displaying veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, who was shot dead during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen as she covered an IDF raid on the West Bank's Jenin refugee camp on May 11, 2022, in the West Bank city of Hebron. The poster reads in Arabic, "the Martyrdom of Journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh". (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

An expert said the death of a veteran Palestinian-American journalist during an Israeli military raid in the West Bank on Wednesday morning will radicalize potential terrorists, and will likely cause diplomatic damage to Israel, as the army scrambled to explain the incident.

“There are calls for revenge on social media now, and from here starts the need to thwart the next terror attack,” said Orit Perlov, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) who specializes in Palestinian social media.

Al-Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, was shot dead in the West Bank city of Jenin as Israeli troops clashed with armed Palestinians. Israel has been cracking down on the area after a series of deadly terror attacks, some of them carried out by Palestinians from the Jenin area.

Investigations into wartime incidents can take months, and only hours have elapsed since the shooting. In the meantime, dueling videos drove the narrative about her death.

Footage on social media showed Abu Akleh lying on the ground, covered in blood, shortly after the sound of gunshots. She was wearing a blue press vest and helmet, clearly identifying herself as a journalist. A young Palestinian man was seen dragging her body from the scene, moments before she was declared dead.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry, military, and other officials posted a video online that appeared to show an armed Palestinian man indiscriminately opening fire between two buildings in Jenin, and said it was likely Abu Akleh was hit by Palestinian bullets.

Al Jazeera’s Abdel Samad Nasser broadcasts a report before an image of his network colleague Shireen Abu Akleh at the Qatari news broadcaster’s main headquarters in the capital Doha on May 11, 2022. Abu Akleh was shot dead in Jenin earlier in the day, amid clashes during a raid by IDF troops. (Karim Jaafar / AFP)

“Someone’s down,” one person can be heard saying in the footage. “Soldier down. He’s lying on the ground,” the person filming said.

The claim about a “soldier down” appeared to be false, as no Israeli troops were hurt in the operation, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli officials suggested the shooter had actually hit Abu Akleh and mistaken her for a soldier.

The video was not solid evidence that Abu Akleh was hit by Palestinian gunfire, though. In fact, the video of the gunman was filmed several hundred meters away, and it was unlikely the two incidents were related, according to the left-wing B’Tselem rights group.

The Israeli military said troops responded to gunfire directed at them during the arrest operation, and said “hits were identified.” There were no reports of Palestinian casualties beyond Abu Akleh and another journalist who was reportedly injured.

The army said it was “looking into the possibility that journalists were injured, potentially by Palestinian gunfire.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the initial findings from the incident showed that IDF fire was not directed at Abu Akleh. He also said it was likely Palestinians hit her.

Still, the IDF and Foreign Ministry were careful with their wording, refusing to explicitly blame the gunman seen in the video for the death of the journalist. “There are indications that Ms. Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian terrorist fire,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Hayat said.

These “indications” are likely not going to be enough to avoid a diplomatic and public opinion nightmare for Israel, in the short term if not beyond.

Israel has in the past dragged its feet on issuing explanations for military incidents — leading to more questions even if it was correct with its initial, but vague, statements.

Fire and smoke rise from the al-Jalaa Tower, which housed the offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike after the IDF warned the occupants to leave a building it said was a Hamas asset, Gaza City, May 15, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Last year, Israeli jets struck a high-rise tower in the Gaza Strip used by international media outlets that the military said also housed a Hamas base of operations. It took the army several months to explain to the media why it needed to strike the building, but by then, the diplomatic damage was already done.

Similar issues attended the deadly violence aboard the Mavi Marmara, a vessel intercepted by the Israeli Navy en route to seeking to breach Israel’s Gaza blockade in 2010.

A screen capture of the video showing the Muhammad al-Durra incident. (Image capture from YouTube)

A decade earlier, Israel battled protracted international criticism surrounding the death of Palestinian 12-year-old Mohammad al-Durra in Gaza.

Perlov told The Times of Israel that a diplomatic crisis as a result of the incident could be solved, in time, but the radicalization of a potential Palestinian terrorist could not.

“Words don’t contradict a video… it doesn’t help at all for teenage Palestinians,” she said. “They see a young Palestinian dragging a woman covered in blood. Anything Israel brings after an hour is useless,” she said. “It’s only good for the court, for the Americans, for Al Jazeera.”

Journalists surround the body of Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist for Al Jazeera network in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Israel in recent weeks has faced a wave of Palestinian terror attacks in Israeli cities and the West Bank, leaving 19 people dead and several others wounded since March 22. The military believes most of the attacks are fueled by religious and nationalist tensions. The IDF raid in Jenin, the area where several of the terrorists originated, was part of an ongoing effort by Israel to thwart such attacks.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on Wednesday set up an investigation to get to the bottom of the incident. Gantz vowed to share all the findings with the Palestinian Authority and the United States. But this process will likely take a while, and by the time its conclusions are established, many minds will have long since been made up. 

Perlov said even if Abu Akleh’s autopsy, or other evidence, proved Israel was not involved, it would not make a difference for a potential attacker looking for ostensible revenge. “Tactically speaking, the next attack is already on its way,” she said.

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