Jul 4, 2022 - World

U.S.: Israeli fire likely killed Shireen Abu Akleh, but test of bullet inconclusive

Posters showing the image of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images
Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

The Biden administration said Monday that Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was likely killed by unintentional Israeli fire, but the results of the ballistics test of the bullet removed from her body were inconclusive.

The big picture: The results of the ballistics test could have a negative effect on President Biden’s planned visit to the West Bank on July 15. The Palestinian Authority agreed to give the bullet to the U.S. expecting that the test would conclude Abu Akleh was shot by Israeli soldiers.

  • The Biden administration has faced increased pressure from Democrats in Congress to take a more active role in the investigation.

Background: The 51-year-old Al Jazeera journalist was killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. She was wearing a bulletproof vest marked "press."

  • Both Israeli and Palestinian officials had conducted their own investigations of the May 11 incident, but neither were able to run a ballistics test to see if the fragment of the bullet removed from her body matched the guns used by Israeli soldiers during the raid.
  • The Israel military operational investigation had determined that there was a possibility that Abu Akleh was shot by an Israeli soldier, but it was not possible to determine who fired the fatal shot without a ballistics test. It said that if an Israeli soldier did shoot her, it was not intentional.
  • The Palestinian investigation determined that Israeli soldiers killed Abu Akleh.

Driving the news: After weeks of refusing to provide the bullet, saying they didn't trust Israel, Palestinian officials gave the bullet to the U.S. security coordinator Lt. Gen. Mike Fenzel on Saturday.

  • On Sunday, the bullet was transferred to the Israeli police forensic lab in Jerusalem, Israeli officials said.
  • Israeli officials said the U.S. security coordinator and an American ballistic expert were present during the different tests.
  • The forensic experts first did a DNA test of the bullet to determine it was extracted from Abu Akleh’s body. A ballistics test was then done to try to match the bullet to the gun of the soldier that fired in the direction where Abu Akleh was standing.

What they're saying: "After an extremely detailed forensic analysis, independent, third-party examiners, as part of a process overseen by the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC), could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.

  • "Ballistic experts determined the bullet was badly damaged, which prevented a clear conclusion," Price said.
  • "In addition to the forensic and ballistic analysis, the USSC was granted full access to both Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian Authority (PA) investigations over the last several weeks," he added.
  • "By summarizing both investigations, the USSC concluded that gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. The USSC 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."
  • "We will remain engaged with Israel and the PA on next steps and urge accountability."

Palestinian minister for civilian affairs Hussein al-Sheikh said in a statement later Monday that "the occupation government bears responsibility for the assassination of Shireen Abu Akleh and we will continue our procedures at the international courts."

  • "We will not allow attempts to conceal the truth or to have shy references in pointing the finger of accusation to Israel," he added.
  • The spokesperson of the Palestinian Presidency Nabil Abu Rudeineh rejected the State Department statement, saying: “We ask the U.S. government to maintain its credibility and hold Israeli fully responsible for the crime of killing Shireen Abu Akleh."

The IDF said in a statement that chief of staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi was ordered to continue the operational investigation around the incident according to the results of the ballistic test. The IDF added that the military prosecutor will make a decision regarding a criminal investigation after the completion of the operational investigation.

  • “The IDF will continue operating to stop terror attacks anywhere while making every effort to avoid civilian casualties," the IDF said.
  • Defense Minister Benny Gantz added in a separate statement that the "defense establishment is committed to uncovering the truth."
  • He added that the "first to bear responsibility in such events, are the terrorists who operate from within population centers."

Behind the scenes: The ballistics test results were ready on Sunday night local time and the conclusions were given to the Biden administration, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

  • Because of the late hour, the publication of the results was postponed to Monday, Israeli officials said.

The big picture: Citing witnesses, as well as visual and audio evidence, independent investigations by several news organizations, including the Washington Post, AP and the New York Times, found that it was likely an Israeli soldier fired the fatal shot.

  • A probe conducted by the UN human rights body came to a similar conclusion.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details from the State Department, Palestinian and Israeli officials.

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