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White House tells Israel Justice Dept opened Abu Akleh probe without its knowledge

Administration seeks to soften blow of FBI investigation into Palestinian-American reporter’s killing, Israeli official says, speculating that ramifications will be minimal

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Protesters hold posters for slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh near the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Protesters hold posters for slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh near the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem ahead of a visit by US President Joe Biden, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The White House informed Israeli counterparts that it was not involved in the decision to open an FBI investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The message appeared aimed at blunting Israeli fury over the investigation by assuring Jerusalem that the decision did not come from the top of the administration, the official speculated, confirming a report on the Axios news site, which revealed that even US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides was initially unaware of the development.

Even if the nuances surrounding the circumstances of the US decision were enough to satisfy the outgoing Israeli government led by centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid, they are unlikely to impress the incoming government led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, which is shaping up to be far more hawkish on issues pertaining to the Palestinians.

Regardless, the Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, speculated that the “practical implications of the investigation will be minimal,” given that the US already recognizes that Abu Akleh’s shooting was unintentional, even if it was an IDF soldier who was likely responsible.

Lapid and outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz have also made it clear that Israel will not cooperate with the probe, further tying the hands of the FBI investigators.

The 51-year-old Abu Akleh, who was wearing a vest marked “Press” and a helmet, was shot dead on May 11 during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen that broke out after soldiers conducted a raid in the northern West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp, in the context of a wider terror crackdown.

US President Joe Biden (L) meets opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. (GPO)

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 intentionally targeted.

While the decision to open a probe initially appeared to demonstrate an about-face from the White House, the latter’s insistence that it was not behind the move indicates that the Justice Department made the decision on its own.

While such investigations are relatively rare, there is certainly precedent for the FBI to probe the death of an American citizen abroad.

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. 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 judiciary.

A White House National Security Council spokeswoman said Monday, “Our thoughts remain with the Abu Akleh family as they grieve this tremendous loss. Not only was Shireen an American citizen, she was a fearless reporter whose journalism and pursuit of truth earned her the respect of audiences around the world.”

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