The Israel Defense Forces have admitted for the first time that there is a “high possibility” Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed by Israeli fire while covering an Israeli military operation in Jenin in May, the IDF announced Monday.
“[I]t appears that it is not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire which hit and killed Ms. Abu Akleh. However, there is a high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen during an exchange of fire,” the IDF said in a statement.
But the Israeli military does not intend to pursue criminal charges or prosecutions of any of the soldiers involved, IDF’s Military Advocate General’s Office said Monday in a separate statement.
“After a comprehensive examination of the incident, and based on all the findings presented, the Military Advocate General determined that under the circumstances of the incident, despite the dire result – the death of Ms. Abu Akleh and Mr. Samudi’s injury – there was no suspicion of a criminal offense that warrants the opening of an MPCID investigation,” the statement said. Abu Akleh’s producer Ali al-Samoudi was wounded in the incident.
“The decision was based on the findings of the review, which determined that IDF soldiers only aimed fire at those who were identified as armed terrorists during the incident. As such, there was no suspicion that a bullet was fired deliberately at anyone identified as a civilian and in particular at anyone identified as a journalist,” the statement said.
A senior IDF official who briefed journalists on the findings of the military’s investigation before they were released said the IDF troops did not know they were shooting at the press, and said that Abu Akleh’s back “probably” being turned to the soldiers was a contributing factor. In images from the scene of the shooting, Abu Akleh is wearing a protective vest that is labeled “PRESS” on both the front and back.
“When they were firing in that direction, the soldiers were not aware they were firing at journalists. They thought they were firing at militants firing at them,” the IDF official said.
A CNN investigation in May unearthed evidence – including two videos of the scene of the shooting – that there was no active combat, nor any Palestinian militants, near Abu Akleh in the moments leading up to her death. Footage obtained by CNN, corroborated by testimony from eight eyewitnesses, an audio forensic analyst and an explosive weapons expert, suggested that Israeli forces intentionally took aim at Abu Akleh.
Al Jazeera, Abu Akleh’s employer, has consistently asserted that the Israeli military is responsible for her death. The network condemned the IDF investigation, saying the delay of more than 100 days since the shooting “is intended to evade the criminal responsibility it bears for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.”
“Al Jazeera denounces the Israeli occupation army’s lack of frank recognition of its crime. The network calls for an independent international party to investigate the crime of the assassination of Shireen Abu Akleh, in order to accomplish justice for Shireen, her family and fellow journalists around the world,” the network said in a statement.
When asked about investigations, including CNN’s, that found no militants near Abu Akleh when she was shot, the IDF official said: “It is our estimate that there were militants in the vicinity of Ms. Abu Abkleh. Maybe not one meter beside her but they were in that area,” but the official did not provide evidence to support that claim.
“When the soldier made that decision, it was a blink of a decision,” the official said. “The soldier did not intend to injure an Al Jazeera journalist or [journalist] from any other network.”
“The soldier is sorry, and I am sorry. This was not supposed to happen and it should not happen. He did not do this on purpose,” the official said. He did not name the soldier.
In Monday’s briefing with reporters, the senior IDF official said the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was too badly damaged to be able to identify which gun fired it, the same conclusion a US-led forensic investigation came to.
However, the IDF has concluded that the soldier who likely fired the fatal shot was to the south of Abu Akleh in an armored military vehicle with limited range of sight, did not identify Abu Akleh as a journalist and thought he was shooting at militants.
The official said soldiers in the area had been under fire “for an hour and fifteen minutes” before Abu Akleh was killed.
Asked why the gunfire appeared to continue even after Abu Akleh fell, the official said they counted no more than seven bullets fired after she was shot. There were Israeli drones filming during the operation, the official said, but not in a high enough resolution to be able to see the fatal shot.
In the initial aftermath of Abu Akleh’s death, Israeli officials first posited that it was likely indiscriminate Palestinian militant gunfire that killed her, before acknowledging it was possible Israeli gunfire was responsible for her death.
In their report on Monday, the IDF left open the possibility that Abu Akleh “was hit by bullets fired by armed Palestinian gunmen toward the direction of the area in which she was present.”
According to the Palestinian autopsy, Abu Akleh was killed by a single bullet to the back of the head.
Shireen Abu Akleh’s family slammed the IDF investigation, saying Israel had “refused to take responsibility for murdering Shireen,” and called for an independent US investigation.
The report “tried to obscure the truth and avoid responsibility for killing Shireen Abu Akleh, our aunt, sister, best friend, journalist, and a Palestinian American,” the family said in a statement sent to CNN.
“We’ve known for over 4 months now that an Israeli soldier shot and killed Shireen as countless investigations conducted by CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Al-Haq, B’tselem, the United Nations, and others have all concluded,” the statement said.
“And yet, as expected, Israel has refused to take responsibility for murdering Shireen. 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.”
“Since Shireen was killed our family has called for a thorough, independent, and credible US investigation that leads to accountability, which is the bare minimum the US government should do for one of their own citizens. We will continue to demand that the US government follow through with its stated commitments to accountability. Accountability requires action.”
In a statement Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price welcomed the IDF review and stressed “the importance of accountability in this case, such as policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.”
“Our thoughts remain with the Abu Akleh family as they grieve this tremendous loss – and with the many others worldwide who brought Shireen and her news reports into their homes for more than two decades,” Price said. “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.”
In July the United States found that gunfire from the Israeli military was “likely responsible” for the killing of Abu Akleh, although an examination overseen by the US of the bullet “could not reach a definitive conclusion” on its origin due to the condition of the bullet.
The US Security Coordinator – who leads an inter-agency team that coordinates with the Israeli government and the PA – “found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad on May 11, 2022, in Jenin, which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel,” according to a statement at the time from the State Department.
The IDF has been carrying out regular raids in the West Bank, especially in the Jenin area, targeting what it says are militants and weapons caches. The raid in Jenin when Abu Akleh was killed came shortly after a months-long wave of attacks by Palestinians that left 19 Israelis and foreigners dead. Some of the suspected assailants of those attacks were from Jenin, according to the Israeli military.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Jennifer Hansler in Washington.