Jul 6, 2022 - World

Israel, Palestinians privately protested to U.S. over statement on Abu Akleh killing

Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Israeli and Palestinian officials separately protested in private to the Biden administration over its statement about the investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, according to three U.S. and Israeli officials.

Driving the news: The State Department on Monday said that based on the investigations done by Israeli and Palestinian officials, it was "likely" Abu Akleh was killed by unintentional Israeli fire, but the ballistics test of the bullet removed from the Al Jazeera journalist's body was inconclusive.

  • The U.S. security coordinator "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," the State Department added.

The big picture: The statement left both sides unhappy and unsatisfied.

  • Palestinian officials' anger and frustration, which they also expressed publicly, could have negative consequences for President Biden’s upcoming visit to Bethlehem next week and his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Background: Abu Akleh was killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • After refusing for months, saying they didn't trust Israel, Palestinian officials on Saturday handed the bullet over to the U.S. for a ballistics test.

Behind the scenes: Two Israeli officials directly involved in the issue said the ballistics test for the bullet was done on Sunday, but the release of the U.S. statement was postponed to Monday because of the late hour and due to attempts by both Israeli and Palestinian officials to influence the final text and conclusions.

  • U.S. officials said the postponement in the release of the statement was because the Biden administration wanted to fully brief both parties on the conclusions in advance.
  • The U.S. officials confirmed that after being briefed on the conclusions, both Israelis and Palestinians protested and pressed for changes in the text.

The Israeli government was upset the U.S. statement said Abu Akleh was likely killed by Israeli fire, despite saying the ballistics test was inconclusive.

  • “We told the U.S. that if the test is inconclusive then the statement should be inconclusive," a senior Israeli official told me.
  • “On Sunday night and Monday morning, there was a long argument over every word and every comma in the State Department statement," a different senior Israeli official told me. A second Israeli official confirmed this description.

The Palestinians had expected that agreeing to a ballistics test would lead to a clear conclusion that Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli fire.

  • They were also angered that the U.S. statement said the Israeli soldier didn’t intentionally target Abu Akleh, a U.S. official said.
  • Several Palestinian officials issued statements Monday rejecting the State Department's conclusions.
  • “We ask the U.S. government to maintain its credibility and hold Israelis fully responsible for the crime of killing Shireen Abu Akleh," Palestinian Presidency spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh said, accusing Israel of intentionally assassinating the 51-year-old journalist.

What they're saying: State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Tuesday that the goal of the U.S. statement “was not to please anyone” but to put forward what the U.S. security coordinator had found in his summary of the investigations to date.

  • "There was extensive consultation and dialogue with our Israeli partners, just as there was extensive consultation and dialogue with the Palestinian Authority as well," Price said.

What’s next: A senior Israeli official told me the Israeli government decided to emphasize in public the parts of the statement it is more comfortable with and hopes the issue can be put to rest.

  • Palestinian officials still want to pursue it and say they will continue their efforts to bring the case to the International Criminal Court.
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