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Opinion Accountability is justified — and needed — in a U.S. reporter’s death

A makeshift memorial for Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin, Israel, on May 19. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

The Justice Department’s reported decision to investigate the still-unexplained killing of a well-known Palestinian American journalist during an Israeli raid in the West Bank this spring is a step in the direction of determining the truth. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who announced a probe is underway, only deepened the impression that Israel is resisting accountability by immediately condemning it and refusing to cooperate.

There seems little doubt that an Israeli soldier fired the bullet that struck Shireen Abu Akleh as the veteran TV correspondent was reporting in the West Bank town of Jenin in May. Human rights groups, international media outlets and the Israeli military itself all reached that conclusion after conducting investigations. So did a U.S. analysis, which sided with Israel by saying, without explanation, the killing was unintentional.

The Justice Department has refused to comment or confirm whether an investigation is underway. But if the department has, in fact, decided to launch a probe, it would underscore that critical questions remain unanswered, including who pulled the trigger and why.

The Israel Defense Forces is in the best position to supply those answers. It has not done so. Instead, it provided no evidence to support its conclusion in September that the shooting was accidental, owing to what a senior Israeli official called “misidentification.” No recordings or transcripts of interviews with any Israeli soldier or officer were made public, nor would officials confirm they exist. IDF video or audio of the incident itself, if there is any, has not been released.

If there was a “misidentification,” what did that mean, and how did the soldier who pulled the trigger not see Abu Akleh’s blue protective vest and helmet marked “press”? In fact, the IDF has divulged no verifiable facts about what its personnel saw, heard or believed before shots were fired at the group of journalists that included the 51-year-old Abu Akleh.

No evidence has emerged that Abu Akleh was targeted for assassination, as some Palestinians allege. Yet Israel has undercut its own credibility with inconsistent statements about the incident from the outset. Israeli officials first said the gunfire had likely come from Palestinian militants. They quickly backed off that. Then, in ruling out a criminal investigation or charges against any soldier, the IDF raised questions about its own objectivity by asserting that the shot that killed Abu Akleh was aimed at Palestinian gunmen “during an exchange of fire” with Israeli troops. That conflicted with in-depth reporting by The Post, the New York Times and other independent groups, which found that no Palestinian gunmen were near Abu Akleh and her colleagues when the shots rang out; nor had there been crossfire in the preceding minutes.

Now, by denouncing the Justice Department’s apparent investigation, and ruling out any cooperation as “interference in Israel’s internal affairs,” Mr. Gantz reinforces doubts that Israel has been fully forthcoming. Those doubts also arise against what human rights groups have long described, and documented, as a pattern of Israeli impunity and resistance to accountability for unjustified killings and other misdeeds involving Palestinians.

Abu Akleh was a U.S. citizen, a respected professional and a prominent media voice in Middle East affairs. Americans deserve a full accounting of her death; the Justice Department’s reported probe is a step in that direction. It is unacceptable that one of Washington’s closest allies would obstruct that entirely reasonable objective.

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