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Shireen Abu Aqla: Israel says 'high probability' soldier killed reporter

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By Tom Bateman

BBC Middle East Correspondent

Shireen Abu Aqla (Al Jazeera handout)Image source, EPA

Image caption,

Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Aqla was widely admired for her coverage from the region

The Israeli military has concluded there is a “high probability” that one of its soldiers killed the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqla.

The veteran Al Jazeera correspondent was shot in the head while covering a raid in the occupied West Bank in May.

It is the closest the military has come to admitting responsibility.

The military’s top legal officer has also ruled out a criminal investigation of the soldiers involved, effectively ending the probe into the case.

Abu Aqla’s family said they were “not surprised” that the IDF was trying to obscure the truth and avoid responsibility for her killing.

Abu Aqla arrived in Jenin refugee camp on 11 May to report on an Israeli army raid which had seen gun battles break out between soldiers and Palestinian militants. She was wearing a helmet and blue flak jacket marked with the word “press”.

The military’s account of how she was killed has been the subject of bitter recriminations.

Eyewitnesses and Palestinian officials reported she was shot by Israeli troops – a finding later backed by the United Nations and multiple press investigations of the evidence. A US review also found it was “likely” that Israeli soldiers fired the fatal bullet.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it had completed several internal probes.

Image source, Reuters

Image caption,

Abu Aqla was shot in the head while covering an Israeli raid in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank

A senior IDF official said on Monday that there was a high probability that she was shot “by mistake by an IDF soldier, and of course he didn’t identify her as a journalist”.

He also revealed investigators had spoken to the soldier involved: “He told us what he did; and if he did it, it was done by mistake.”

“I want to emphasise the fighting environment that these soldiers were under. They were confined in a protected vehicle with multi-dimensional fire from every direction,” the official said.

However, video evidence from the moment Abu Aqla was shot does not back the claim of militant gunfire in the spot that journalists and bystanders had gathered.

Israeli troops were believed to be 200m (656ft) away, and the footage shows repeated fire for several minutes towards the area where the journalists were walking.

Asked by the BBC about the footage, the senior IDF official said soldiers were under fire and could not see what was happening from inside their jeep, adding they could not see the journalists gathered.

The lack of a criminal investigation will anger Palestinians and will come as a further blow to Abu Aqla’s family.

Responding to the IDF announcement they said: “It’s obvious to anyone that Israeli war criminals cannot investigate their own crimes. However, we remain deeply hurt, frustrated, and disappointed.”

Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have long criticised the IDF’s mechanism for internal investigations, arguing that it grants soldiers near total impunity when it comes to prosecution in cases of harming Palestinians.

Image source, Reuters

Image caption,

The Israeli military’s finding follows pressure from the US for a transparent inquiry

The IDF had been intensifying its search, arrest and punitive home demolition raids in the West Bank after a wave of attacks carried out by Palestinians and Arab Israelis on the streets of Israel which killed 18 people. Some of the perpetrators came from Jenin. An Israeli officer was shot dead in Jenin later in May.

Israeli officials, including then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, initially claimed Abu Aqla was probably shot by Palestinian gunmen.

As pressure grew for a transparent investigation, the IDF later said that fire from Israeli soldiers was one of two “possibilities” accounting for her death, the other being fire from Palestinian militants.

The 51-year-old correspondent was admired by Palestinians and the wider Arab world for three decades of coverage from the region. Her killing gained global attention and became a symbol of the often under-reported dangers faced by civilians during Israeli military incursions.

Earlier this year, her family called for full accountability, including a criminal investigation. Her brother Tony told the BBC in July that she was “assassinated by extrajudicial killing, and we simply need someone to be held accountable”.

Questions were quickly raised about the IDF’s internal probe.

In the hours after her death Israeli officials publicly circulated speculation which wrongly implied specific Palestinian gunmen could have shot her, including video from Jenin camp from a different location to her killing.

Meanwhile, the IDF accused Palestinian officials of obstructing an inquiry, demanding they hand over the bullet which it said could determine if their troops had fired the fatal shot. The Palestinians in turn said the Israelis could not be trusted.

A Palestinian Authority inquiry based on an autopsy and their examination of the bullet found that “the only source of firing was by the [Israeli] occupation forces with the aim to kill”.

Media caption,

Shireen’s brother (left): “It is very hard to live without her”

There were growing calls for the US administration to become involved.

In May, dozens of Congressional lawmakers signed a letter to the FBI and the state department demanding a probe by American law enforcement agencies.

The US state department put pressure on the Palestinians to release the bullet. That took place in July, but the US administration said a forensic analysis conducted by “independent examiners” could not reach a definitive conclusion because the bullet was too badly damaged.

The US also said a review of the Israeli and Palestinian probes by the US security co-ordinator concluded that “gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Aqla.”

The US described her death as the result of “tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation”, adding that it found “no reason to believe” that the shooting was intentional.

Her brother told the BBC the family had been “abandoned” by the US administration when President Joe Biden visited the region in July. He urged FBI investigators to travel to investigate her killing.

The family later met US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Washington DC but said the administration had still not “meaningfully answered” their calls for justice.

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