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Lapid: Our strong protest has been conveyed to the Americans

Lapid on FBI probe of Abu Akleh death: No foreign body will interrogate our troops

PM rejects US investigation into reporter’s killing; Defense Minister Gantz also speaks out in opposition: ‘IDF investigations are deep and thorough’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Yellow tape marks bullet holes on a tree and a portrait and flowers create a makeshift memorial at the site where Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in the West Bank city of Jenin, on May 19, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
Yellow tape marks bullet holes on a tree and a portrait and flowers create a makeshift memorial at the site where Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in the West Bank city of Jenin, on May 19, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday doubled down on their criticism of the US Justice Department’s decision to launch an FBI probe into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Speaking at parliament as lawmakers of the 25th Knesset were sworn in, the outgoing leaders insisted that Israel would not allow its soldiers to be interrogated by a foreign entity. The US has yet to comment publicly on the matter, but an Israeli official confirmed to The Times of Israel that American officials have informed their Israeli counterparts of the decision to launch an FBI investigation, given that Abu Akleh was an American citizen.

For months, the Biden administration refused to launch its own investigation, instead relying on probes conducted by Israelis and Palestinians. Washington went on to reach the same conclusion determined by the IDF, that Abu Akleh was hit by a bullet likely shot by an Israeli soldier by mistake. The Palestinian Authority has alleged that she was targeted.

Democratic lawmakers and Abu Akleh’s family pushed for the US to go further, and the pressure may have played a role in the Justice Department decision, which was swiftly rejected by Israel.

“IDF soldiers will not be interrogated by the FBI or by any foreign body or foreign country, no matter how friendly,” Lapid said. “We will not abandon IDF soldiers to foreign investigations, and our strong protest has been conveyed to the Americans at the appropriate levels.

“The IDF is a moral and values-based army. IDF soldiers and commanders defend the State of Israel, thoroughly investigate every aberrant incident, and are committed to the values of democracy and its laws,” he continued.

At a military ceremony earlier in the day, Lapid said, “I will not allow an IDF soldier that was protecting himself from terrorist fire to be prosecuted just to receive applause from abroad.”

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid shakes hands during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Knesset, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz argued at his Tuesday faction meeting that the FBI investigation was unnecessary and insisted there had been no intention to deliberately harm Abu Akleh.

“I want to say clearly, honestly and respectfully: The State of Israel acts against murderous terror and the IDF operates in very difficult battlefields,” Gantz told his fellow National Unity party lawmakers in front of reporters.

“In the case of Abu Akleh, the IDF carried out a professional investigation and included the US fully [in that investigation],” he notes.

“This was a very difficult battle in which hundreds of bullets were fired at IDF soldiers and also in [Abu Akleh’s] direction and there was no intention to harm her. IDF investigations are deep and thorough and there is no need to open another investigation,” he added.

On Monday Gantz tweeted that the FBI probe was “a grave mistake.”

“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,” Gantz wrote tersely then.

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during a National Unity faction meeting, ahead of the swearing-in of the new Knesset, on November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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.

Lapid also panned such suggestions at the time, fuming over the attempt to “dictate” Israel’s policies. The US seemed to back off, 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 is set to transition in the coming days to a new government led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-right allies, which may further increase friction between Jerusalem and Washington. Netanyahu has yet to comment on the matter of the Abu Akleh probe.

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 (which Abu Akleh was not).

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.

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