The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American reporter killed by IDF, network says; Israel calls for inquiry

Al Jazeera said Wednesday that Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran journalist for the news network, was fatally shot by Israeli troops in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin. (Al Jazeera/AFP/Getty Images)
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JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — Israeli forces killed a Palestinian American journalist for the Al Jazeera news network in the West Bank early Wednesday, according to the network and the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israeli officials said the journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, was killed in an exchange of gunfire but said they had not determined who fired the fatal shot.

Abu Akleh, 51, a longtime Al Jazeera correspondent and a revered figure on Arab television screens, was shot in the neck while covering Israeli raids in the Jenin refugee camp, according to witness accounts.

In a statement, Al Jazeera accused Israeli forces of killing Abu Akleh “in cold blood” and said she had been “clearly wearing a press jacket that identifies her as a journalist.” In interviews, multiple eyewitnesses — including two journalists who were standing next to Abu Akleh — disputed Israeli assertions that she was killed during crossfire, saying there was no fighting in the area just before Abu Akleh was shot.

“It was dead quiet,” one of the journalists, Ali al-Samudi, who was also injured by gunfire, told The Washington Post in an interview from his hospital bed.

In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the shooting occurred while the Israel Defense Forces were conducting counterterrorism operations in Jenin, after a spate of deadly attacks over the past few weeks in Israeli cities. During the operation, he said, “armed Palestinians shot in an inaccurate, indiscriminate and uncontrolled manner.”

“Our forces from the IDF returned fire as accurately, carefully and responsibly as possible. Sadly, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in the exchange,” he said. “… Without a serious investigation, we will not reach the truth.”

Mourners carry the body of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh after she was killed during an Israeli army raid in the West Bank city of Jenin. (Video: The Washington Post)

But five witnesses interviewed by The Post at the scene said the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians had occurred hundreds of yards from where the journalists came to be gathered and had ended well before two of them were shot.

“Down where the girl was killed, there was no confrontation at all,” Ahmad Al Husari said, referring to Abu Akleh. Husari’s house was the target of the Israeli military action and had been the center of the early-morning fighting, he and neighbors said.

Israel’s first assertion — that there was a “high degree of probability” that Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian fire, in the words of IDF spokesman Brig. Gen. Ran Kochav — softened in the hours following the incident. “At this point, it is not possible to determine the source of the gunfire which hit her,” Lt. Gen Aviv Kohavi, the IDF’s chief of staff, said in a video statement released Wednesday evening.

A senior Israeli official, in a statement sent to reporters, said that the military’s assessment was based on evidence that included video footage in which a gunman is heard saying in Arabic, “We hit a soldier, he’s on the ground.” The Israeli military said that no Israeli soldiers were injured during clashes in Jenin on Wednesday and that the Palestinians in the video may have been referring to Abu Akleh.

It was not clear when the video, which was published on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account Wednesday, was recorded. A Jenin field researcher from B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, shared a map with reporters marking the location of Abu Akleh’s killing and the location of events depicted in the video distributed by Israeli officials.

The map locations, determined by GPS coordinates and aerial shots, were nearly 950 feet apart. Post reporters in Jenin who visited the site of the fighting confirmed the approximate distance between the two locations and that a great number of houses and walls stand between them. They found no setting similar to the one depicted in the video — a dense warren of alleys — near the spot where Abu Akleh fell, a more airy section of vacant lots, a cemetery and an open-air concrete block workshop.

Officials in Washington raised immediate concerns about the incident. State Department spokesman Ned Price, in a tweet, said the United States “strongly” condemned Abu Akleh’s killing, adding that “the investigation must be immediate and thorough and those responsible must be held accountable.”

Samudi, a veteran journalist who also works for the Jerusalem-based newspaper al-Quds, said he and Abu Akleh had been standing several hundred meters from the house where Israeli soldiers had been carrying out an attempted arrest. His shoulder was wrapped in a bandage, and dark bloodstains were visible on a bullet-resistant vest marked “PRESS” on the table beside him. He had been working with Abu Akleh on Wednesday as a producer, he said.

They were alone with four or five other Palestinian journalists, all wearing protective gear marking them as such, he said.

The journalists were near Israeli military vehicles, he added, and they moved slowly to make sure the soldiers could identify them as reporters. There were no other Palestinian civilians or fighters in the area that he could see, he said.

Suddenly, a single shot rang out, Samudi said, close enough for him to hear the whiz of a bullet. He said he turned and ran and was immediately hit in the upper left of his back.

“I heard Shireen scream, ‘Ali has been shot! Ali has been shot!’ ” he said. “Then they shot Shireen.” He was adamant that the group was not caught in a crossfire between soldiers and militants.

“There were no fighters where we were, none at all,” he said. “We don’t put ourselves in the line of fire. Whatever the Israeli army says for us to do, we do. They shot at us directly and deliberately.”

Another journalist, Shatha Hanaysha, 29, said the group stood in an open area “for about 10 minutes to make sure the Israeli army can identify us as journalists.”

“We were told by people there were Israeli snipers on the roofs, but I didn’t see any,” she said. “It was very quiet. There was no danger in our area.”

She said there was no firefight happening around them — just the sudden individual shots. “At the shots, everyone ran toward a wall. But Shireen and I weren’t able to climb it,” she said. “Shireen was screaming, ‘Ali is shot!’ Then she fell. I tried to help her up, but I couldn’t.”

“She was shot,” she said, pointing at her own neck. By Wednesday afternoon, fresh flowers and olive branches already covered the drying pool of blood where Abu Akleh had fallen.

Up the hill, several residents of the refugee camp confirmed there had been early-morning fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants.

At 47-year-old produce vendor Husari’s house, the hallway was pocked with bullet holes and covered in glass. Spent stun grenades lay on the street outside. He said Israeli soldiers broke through the door to his home about 5 a.m. “They were after my son,” Husari said.

Palestinian militants arrived 20 minutes later, according to Husari and another neighbor. Husari said the Palestinians exchanged fire with the Israelis until about 6:30 a.m., and then the neighborhood became quiet. The Palestinian Health Ministry said Abu Akleh was shot shortly after 7 a.m.

Abu Akleh was among the highest-profile Palestinian journalists and a veteran of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She joined Al Jazeera in 1997 as one of the network’s first field correspondents. Over the more than two decades since, her voice, face and reportage became a mainstay for Palestinian audiences.

“Shireen was a brave, kind, & high-integrity journalist that I and millions of Palestinians grew up watching,” tweeted Ramallah-based Palestinian activist Fadi Quran. “A devastating tragedy.”

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.