FBI probes killing of Palestinian-American reporter Abu Akleh; Israel: Grave mistake

Move represents about-face by US, which had said it wouldn’t open its own probe into death of reporter who Israel says was likely shot by IDF in error; Gantz: We won’t cooperate

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Shireen Abu Akleh stands next to a TV camera above the Old City of Jerusalem, in an undated photo. (Al Jazeera Media Network via AP)
Shireen Abu Akleh stands next to a TV camera above the Old City of Jerusalem, in an undated photo. (Al Jazeera Media Network via AP)

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation is launching an investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, apparently by an Israeli soldier, officials said Monday, with Israel immediately rejecting cooperation with the probe.

US officials updated their Israeli counterparts earlier this month about the decision, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Monday, confirming a Channel 14 news report.

The 51-year-old Abu Akleh, who was wearing a vest marked “Press” and a helmet, was shot dead on May 11 during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen that broke out after soldiers raided the Jenin refugee camp, in the northern West Bank, amid a wider terror crackdown.

An Israel Defense Forces investigation found that she was hit by a bullet likely shot by an Israeli soldier, by mistake. The Palestinian Authority has alleged that she was targeted.

The US decision represents an about-face after the Biden administration insisted for months that it would not be opening its own investigation, instead relying on probes conducted by the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. It had hitherto accepted the Israeli conclusion.

There has been intense pressure for a US probe from Abu Akleh’s family, as well as Democratic members of Congress, including several relatively moderate lawmakers who are known for their strong support for the US-Israel relationship, such as Sen. Robert Menendez and Sen. Corey Booker.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted that the decision to probe Abu Akleh’s “unfortunate” death was “a grave mistake.” He noted that the IDF had conducted its own investigation into the Al Jazeera reporter’s death and that those findings were shared with the Biden administration.

Banners depicting slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh hang on a building overlooking the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank, on July 14, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

“I made it clear to the American representatives that we stand behind the IDF’s soldiers, that we will not cooperate with any external investigation and we will not allow interference in Israel’s internal affairs,” tweeted Gantz.

The defense minister voiced similar pushback in September when the State Department deputy spokesman said the US was urging Israel to review the IDF’s open-fire protocols in the wake of Abu Akleh’s killing.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid also lashed out at the time, fuming over the attempt to “dictate” Israel’s policies. The US seemed to back off later that week, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying it was not on Washington or “or any other country or entity to say precisely what the IDF or any military or security organization around the world should do.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined a request to comment on Monday, as did the US Justice Department, though neither denied the opening of an investigation. A spokeswoman for Lapid also declined to comment.

Abu Akleh’s family did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did Palestinian Foreign Ministry officials.

The announcement came as Israel is set to transition to a new government led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hard-right allies, which may increase friction between Jerusalem and Washington. Netanyahu had no immediate comment.

While such investigations are relatively rare, there is certainly precedent for the FBI to probe the death of an American citizen abroad.

It is not unusual for the FBI or other US investigators to mount probes into non-natural deaths or injuries of American citizens abroad, particularly if they are government employees.

However, such separate investigations are not the rule and it is rare, if not unprecedented, for them to occur in a US-allied country like Israel that is recognized in Washington as having a credible and independent judicial system.

A White House National Security Council spokeswoman said, “Our thoughts remain with the Abu Akleh family as they grieve this tremendous loss. Not only was Shireen an American citizen, she was a fearless reporter whose journalism and pursuit of truth earned her the respect of audiences around the world.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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