Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday strongly rejected American calls for Israel to reexamine its military’s rules of engagement.
The three leaders’ forceful comments came after an IDF probe into the killing of Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh determined that errant fire from an Israeli soldier was likely responsible.
On Tuesday, US State Department Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel said the US would “continue to press our Israeli partners to closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagement and consider additional steps to mitigate the risk of civilian harm, protect journalists and prevent similar tragedies in the future.”
“That is a key goal for us,” Patel said.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony of Navy officers at the Haifa naval base on Wednesday evening, Lapid hit back, saying “no one will dictate our rules of engagement to us.”
Lapid said he hears “calls to prosecute IDF soldiers following the death of Shireen Abu Akleh” and “calls to change our rules of engagement.”
“Israel has expressed sorrow over her death. It was a tragedy that transpired in an incident in which there was heavy enemy fire. The IDF never intentionally shoots at innocent people. We are deeply committed to freedom of the press and to some of the most stringent rules of engagement in the world,” Lapid said.
“But to be clear, I will not allow an IDF soldier that was protecting himself from terrorist fire to be prosecuted just to receive applause from abroad,” Lapid continued.
“No one will dictate our rules of engagement to us, when we are the ones fighting for our lives. Our soldiers have the full backing of the government of Israel and the people of Israel.”
Earlier, Gantz said that only the chief of the Israel Defense Forces can determine the rules of engagement.
“The chief of staff, and he alone, determines and will continue to determine the open-fire policies, in accordance with the operational need and the values of the IDF, including the purity of arms,” Gantz said in a statement following a briefing at the Military Intelligence headquarters.
“The commanders and soldiers strictly implement the rules. There was and will be no political involvement in the matter,” Gantz added.
Speaking to US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides Wednesday night, Bennett said “American intervention in IDF soldiers’ rules of engagement is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.”
Amid the Israeli pushback, the Ynet news site quoted diplomatic sources saying Jerusalem did not expect the US to put significant pressure on Israel over the matter.
Abu Akleh, a 51-year-old Al-Jazeera journalist, was killed while covering a firefight on May 11, during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen that broke out after the Israel Defense Forces raided the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank amid a wider terror crackdown.
She was wearing a vest marked “Press” and a helmet at the time.
The Biden administration has for months been pushing Israel to review and potentially reform its open-fire policies, which include call to a suspect to halt, firing into the air, and only using deadly force if a soldier feels threatened.
The requests have been made during calls US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held with Israeli counterparts.
The IDF initially blamed Palestinian gunmen for shooting Abu Akleh, but later acknowledged that she could also have been killed by Israeli soldiers.
Following an internal review, an Israeli military official told reporters Monday that a soldier had been identified who had “with very high likelihood” shot the journalist by mistake, based on the army’s investigation.
“He misidentified her. His reports in real-time point to a misidentification,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The army said Monday that no criminal wrongdoing was suspected in the accidental killing.
The US State Department’s initial response to the IDF probe did not mention continued pressure on Israel to reform its rules.
“We welcome Israel’s review of this tragic incident, and again underscore the importance of accountability in this case, such as policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.
The Palestinian Authority has said its own investigation proved that Abu Akleh was intentionally targeted and killed by the IDF during the raid — a conclusion Israel has flatly denied.
Abu Akleh’s family and Palestinian leaders have accused Washington of failing to seek accountability from Israel over the killing of the journalist.
The publication of the findings by the IDF on Monday came following reported pressure by the US, including during a recent visit by US Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf.
Leaf was in Israel and the West Bank from Thursday to Saturday for a low-profile visit that included meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials. The US State Department said Leaf was in the region “to discuss a range of priorities,” which included “US interest in improving the quality of life for the Palestinian people.”
Few details emerged from her visit, though she reportedly told Israeli officials that Washington was troubled by escalating violence in the West Bank.