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PA blasts inconclusive American Abu Akleh findings; Israel irked over partial blame

Abbas calls on US to ‘maintain its credibility’ as top aide slams ‘timid’ conclusion bullet too damaged to determine who fired it; PM Lapid says probe proves shooting unintentional

Palestinian mourners carry the body of veteran Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh out of the office of Al Jazeera after friends and colleagues paid their respects, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 11, 2022. (AP/Nasser Nasser, File)
Palestinian mourners carry the body of veteran Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh out of the office of Al Jazeera after friends and colleagues paid their respects, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 11, 2022. (AP/Nasser Nasser, File)

The Palestinian Authority on Monday lambasted the United States over its determination from ballistic analysis that it could not definitively prove who killed Palestinian American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, while Israel lamented Washington’s conclusion that the lethal gunfire still likely came from IDF soldiers.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas called on the US to “maintain its credibility” in a response to the State Department’s conclusion. “We demand that the US hold the Israeli government fully responsible for the crime of killing the martyr Abu Akleh,” said Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah.

Other officials in Ramallah were more critical. “We were surprised by these statements. The technical data in our possession indicates that the condition of the shell is viable for matching with the firearm [that shot it],” PA Public Prosecutor Akram al-Khatib said in a statement.

Al-Khatib called the American conclusion “unacceptable” in light of evidence collected by the PA.

Senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh also criticized the US, saying that “we will not permit attempts to conceal the truth or timid comments in indicting Israel.”

Al-Sheikh said the PA will continue pursuing Abu Akleh’s case “before the international courts.”

Palestinian Salim Wad points out bullets holes left from a gun battle between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers in a set of narrow alleys some 300 meters (yards) from where veteran Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed, in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 19, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

In Israel, public reactions were also critical, though more tame. Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the probe had determined that Abu Akleh was not deliberately targeted when she was shot while covering a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen that broke out after the IDF raided the West Bank city of Jenin on May 11.

Lapid’s statement did not mention the US determination that Israeli troops likely fired the fatal bullet, instead focusing on the lack of conclusive evidence.

“The IDF probe clarifies that it cannot be determined who is responsible for the unfortunate death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, but it can be determined with certainty that there was no intention to hurt her,” he said.

He noted that journalists die all over the world, though “it’s obvious that Israel is interested in protecting journalists and freedom of the press in any place and under all conditions.” Lapid added that he gives full backing to Israel troops “risking their lives to protect Israeli citizens against terror.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz began his response statement expressing his condolences over the killing before emphasizing that those foremost responsible for the incident were the Palestinian gunmen operating “from within population centers” during the IDF’s raid of Jenin.

“Our troops and their commanders have the duty to defend the citizens of the State of Israel, and they have my full support to operate accordingly,” Gantz said.

In this undated photo provided by Al Jazeera Media Network, reporter Shireen Abu Akleh stands next to a TV camera above the Old City of Jerusalem. (Al Jazeera Media Network via AP)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi instructed the military to continue to investigate “using all means at our disposal and with a commitment to transparency and seeking the truth,” an army spokesperson said on Tuesday.

Any decision to open a criminal probe will only be made after the completion of the investigation, the military added.

Behind closed doors, however, there was significant Israeli frustration with the State Department’s publicized findings. Two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that Jerusalem did not appreciate the US decision to include its determination that the lethal gunfire likely came from the IDF, given that the ballistic analysis carried out by the US had been inconclusive.

The US notified Israel and the PA of its conclusions ahead of the Monday announcement, and Israel voiced its objections, an official said.

In their own statement, Abu Akleh’s family pronounced themselves “incredulous” and harshly criticized the US determination that there was no evidence the reporter’s killing was intentional.

“There were numerous eyewitnesses to the killing, and we have now had the benefit of reports from multiple local and international media outlets, human rights organizations, and the United Nations, that an Israeli soldier fired the fatal shot,” the family said.

Palestinians visit the site where veteran Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed, in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 18, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

They called the journalist’s death “an extrajudicial killing.”

The Israeli B’Tselem human rights organization also criticized the US conclusion, calling it a form of whitewashing.

“All investigations published so far conclude that Israel is responsible for the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. It is not clear on what grounds does the US State Department seek to dismiss her killing,” B’Tselem tweeted. It said the US should treat the killing as a crime and seek justice.

“As far as Israel is concerned, its policy regarding the killing of Palestinians has never been anything other than an organized whitewash,” it said. “The odds that those responsible for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh will be held to account are all but nonexistent. Meanwhile, Israel’s international impunity remains unchallenged.”

Yesh Din, another dovish Israeli group, said the US announcement “shows once again why there is no trust in the IDF spokesman or the army, which rushed to say that the bullet was not Israeli.”

It called for an independent international probe.

Joint List MK Aida Touma Suleiman said she will keep fighting to see those responsible for Abu Akleh’s death brought to justice, “from the soldier who squeezed the trigger to the politicians responsible for the policies and for hiding the truth.”

Palestinians hold posters displaying veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen as she covered a raid in Jenin on May 11, 2022. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

In a statement announcing the US findings earlier Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said “ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged, which prevented a clear conclusion.” The PA handed over the bullet to the US Security Coordinator in Jerusalem Mike Penzel on Saturday for US authorities to oversee a ballistic analysis with Israel.

Israel initially said Abu Akleh was likely killed by Palestinian gunmen, but quickly changed its tune, saying the shots may have originated from the IDF though it could not determine that for sure until the PA handed over the bullet. For over a month and a half, the PA refused, arguing that Israel would use it to whitewash the investigation. Ramallah’s own investigation found that Abu Akleh had been shot from behind by Israeli troops.

Palestinian officials claimed on Saturday that American experts would examine the bullet, but according to the Israeli army, an American general merely observed an Israeli investigation.

Penzel’s office was granted full access to both Israeli and Palestinian investigations into Abu Akleh’s death, Price said.

“The USSC concluded that gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances,” Price said.

The death of Abu Akleh, an American citizen who held an Israeli-issued East Jerusalem identity card, shocked Palestinians and sparked an international outcry.  The veteran television correspondent was widely seen as a trailblazing figure for women and Palestinians.

Subsequent investigations by major media outlets such as The New York Times, The Associated Press, and CNN also found that Israeli soldiers had likely fired the fatal gunshots.

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