Washington said it “welcomed” the Israeli military’s findings released Monday that there was a “high probability” Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was accidentally killed by an Israeli soldier nearly four months ago, and stressed the need for accountability in the high-profile incident.
“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 in a statement Monday night.
The 51-year-old Palestinian-American journalist, who was wearing a vest marked “Press” and a helmet, was killed during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen while covering an Israeli military operation in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank on May 11.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initially blamed Palestinian gunmen for the shooting, but later acknowledged that Abu Akleh could also have been killed by Israeli soldiers.
On Monday, an Israeli military official told reporters 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.
In the months since the killing, senior US officials have been pressing their Israeli counterparts to update the military’s rules of engagement so that such tragedies are avoided.
Price said the US “has made it a priority to mitigate and respond to civilian harm caused by military operations” and would share “best practices” with military partners and allies.
“Our thoughts remain with the Abu Akleh family as they grieve this tremendous loss,” said Price.
A US government probe in July concluded that an Israeli soldier likely unintentionally shot the fatal bullet that killed Abu Akleh, but ballistic analyses were inconclusive on whether the shot came from an Israeli gun or a Palestinian one.
The US statement outraged Abu Akleh’s family and Palestinian leaders who accused Washington of failing to seek accountability from Israel over the killing of the journalist.
Based on the final findings of its probe, the IDF said Monday it was still “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire” that killed Abu Akleh, but that “there is a high probability that Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen during an exchange of fire in which life-threatening, widespread and indiscriminate shots were fired toward IDF soldiers.”
The IDF said Abu Akleh was not identified by troops at any point during the operation in Jenin, and troops had not intentionally fired at her, or any other civilians in the area.
Several independent media investigations have said there were no armed Palestinians in the vicinity of Abu Akleh and other journalists she was with when they came under gunfire, which also wounded another reporter.
A criminal investigation will not be opened, the army said Monday, as the Military Advocate General found there was no suspicion of any criminal offense in the case, meaning neither the soldier nor anyone in his chain of command would face punishment.
Abu Akleh was highly respected in the Arab world for her decades covering Palestinians and other Arab communities.
Her family criticized the investigation, saying on Monday that the army “tried to obscure the truth and avoid responsibility” for the killing.
“Our family is not surprised by this outcome since it’s obvious to anyone that Israeli war criminals cannot investigate their own crimes. However, we remain deeply hurt, frustrated and disappointed,” the family said in a statement. It also reiterated its call for an independent US investigation and a probe by the International Criminal Court.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem accused the army of a whitewash. “It was no mistake. It’s policy,” the group said.
Rights groups say Israeli investigations of the shooting deaths of Palestinians often languish for months or years before being quietly closed and that soldiers are rarely held accountable.
Al Jazeera’s local bureau chief, Walid Al-Omari, accused the army of trying to escape responsibility. “This is clearly an attempt to circumvent the opening of a criminal investigation,” he told The Associated Press.
The IDF had repeatedly rejected independent media investigations, some of which claimed she was deliberately targeted, and called the probes “biased.”
The Palestinian Authority said its investigation proved that Abu Akleh was intentionally targeted and killed by the IDF during the raid.
The IDF also previously said it could not conclusively say who shot her until it got the bullet, which the PA refused to hand over for several months. The eventual examination of the bullet was inconclusive.
Israeli police drew widespread criticism from around the world when they beat mourners and pallbearers at her funeral for Abu Akleh in Jerusalem on May 14. An Israeli newspaper reported that a police investigation found wrongdoing by some of its officers, but said those who supervised the event would not be seriously punished.
The publication of the findings by the IDF on Monday came following reported pressure by the United States, 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 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.
Agencies contributed to this report.