A US government probe concluded on Monday that an Israeli soldier likely unintentionally shot the fatal bullet that killed Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, although ballistic analysis was unable to establish conclusively whether the shot came from an Israeli gun or a Palestinian one.
“Ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged, which prevented a clear conclusion,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement after American officials were allowed to oversee an examination of the shell, which had been withheld by the Palestinian Authority until Saturday.
Abu Akleh, an American citizen, was killed during an Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp in mid-May. During the arrest operation, a firefight broke out between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen, and Abu Akleh was shot in the head, with Israeli and Palestinian officials trading blame.
For weeks, Israeli military officials said that they had identified a soldier’s gun that may have fired the shot that killed Abu Akleh, but said that confirmation would require ballistic analysis to match the gun to the bullet. But the Palestinian Authority refused to turn over the round or conduct a joint investigation with Israel. Ramallah’s own investigation found that Abu Akleh had been shot from behind by Israeli troops.
The PA only agreed to transfer the round to the US embassy in Jerusalem for examination on Saturday. Palestinian officials claimed that American experts would examine the bullet, but according to the Israeli army, an American general merely observed an Israeli investigation.
The US probe into Abu Akleh’s disputed killing was led by United States Security Coordinator Gen. Michael Penzel, who oversees security ties between Israel and the Palestinians. 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.
Following the US announcement, 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.
Any decision to open a criminal probe will only be made after the completion of the investigation, the military added.
Also responding to the US announcement, Defense Ministry Benny Gantz expressed his condolences for Abu Akleh’s death, although he reiterated that the responsibility for her killing remained unclear.
“Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine the source of the shooting – and as such, the investigation will continue,” he said.
Gantz further emphasized that Israeli troops had come under fire during the Jenin gun battle. “Hundreds of bullets were fired at IDF troops, which responded with firepower of their own, only in the direction of the sources of the shooting,” he said in an English-language video.
“Those responsible first and foremost are the terrorists who operated amid a civilian population,” Gantz said in a separate Hebrew-language statement.
While long-awaited, the inconclusive results of the ballistic examination are unlikely to change the dueling narratives that have set into place surrounding Abu Akleh’s death.
Two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that Israel is frustrated by the US conclusion that IDF troops were likely responsible for Abu Akleh’s death.
Having been notified ahead of time, Israeli officials pushed back on the decision to suggest that the IDF was likely responsible given that the bullet was too damaged for the USSC to reach a definitive conclusion, one official said on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority slammed the United States for not definitively blaming Israel for Abu Akleh’s death.
“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 also addressed the fact that the probe found no evidence that the shooting was intentional, as investigators led by him had claimed. Al-Khatib called that conclusion “unacceptable” in light of evidence collected by the PA, which he said definitively proved that Israeli troops had targeted the journalist.
Senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh criticized the US, saying that “we will not permit attempts to conceal the truth or timid comments in indicting Israel.”
Al-Sheikh vowed that the PA will continue to pursue Abu Akleh’s case “before the international courts.”
In a statement, Abu Akleh’s family also harshly criticized the US investigation into her death for not going far enough in blaming Israeli troops for what they called “an extrajudicial killing.”
“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 Abu Akleh family said.
International investigations also blamed Israel
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.
Palestinian officials accused Israeli soldiers of executing the correspondent in cold blood almost as soon as news of her death broke. Israel originally blamed Palestinian gunmen, but has since acknowledged that Israeli troops could have fired the fatal shot.
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.
“This bullet is not the only evidence of the crime. There are six different investigations, and witness testimony, and videos,” said Walid al-Omari, Abu Akleh’s former boss at Al Jazeera.
The US urged Ramallah to share the results of its investigation with Israel so as to shed potentially definitive light on the incident. Israeli officials also repeatedly called for the PA to conduct a joint investigation, but the PA refused, saying any Israeli probe would be tainted.
“We refused a joint investigation, because those who fabricated the history of a people, stealing land and homeland, can fabricate a narrative. We do not trust them,” PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said at a memorial marking 40 days since Abu Akleh’s death.