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.
“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.
Several media organizations, including CNN, all determined in their own investigations that Abu Akleh was most likely killed by Israeli gunfire. Al Jazeera, Abu Akleh’s employer, has consistently asserted that the Israeli military is responsible for her death.
When asked about investigations, including CNN’s, that found no militants near Abu Akleh when she was killed, the 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.
When she was killed, Abu Akleh was accompanied by a group of other journalists, including her producer Ali al-Samoudi, who was wounded in the incident.
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.
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.