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U.N. rights body says Israeli soldiers killed American journalist in West Bank

Mourners in the West Bank city of Ramallah attend a memorial June 19 for Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — A veteran Palestinian American journalist was killed by Israeli forces while covering a military raid in the occupied West Bank, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said Friday, summarizing the results of its investigation into the fatal May shooting of Shireen Abu Akleh, a correspondent for Al Jazeera.

“All information we have gathered — including official information from the Israeli military and the Palestinian Attorney-General — is consistent with the finding that the shots that killed Abu Akleh and injured her colleague Ali Sammoudi came from Israeli Security Forces,” the spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, said in a statement.

Abu Akleh was not shot “from indiscriminate firing by armed Palestinians, as initially claimed by Israeli authorities,” she added.

Abu Akleh, a correspondent with decades of experience covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was fatally shot in the head early May 11 while reporting on an Israeli raid on the West Bank city of Jenin. Witnesses said the fire appeared to come from a convoy of Israeli military vehicles, but Israeli officials initially said she was probably killed by Palestinian gunfire, before reversing course and saying it was possible she had unintentionally been shot by an Israeli soldier.

How Shireen Abu Akleh was killed

The conclusions from the United Nations — which included the finding that “several single, seemingly well-aimed bullets” were fired at Abu Akleh and three other journalists from the direction of Israeli forces — mirrored the conclusions of several independent investigations, including a review by The Washington Post, which found that Israeli troops were likely to have fired the fatal shot.

An Israeli military statement Friday did not directly address the U.N. findings but said Israel had continued to investigate the shooting and concluded that “Abu Akleh was not intentionally shot by an [Israel Defense Forces] soldier and that it is not possible to determine whether she was killed by a Palestinian gunman shooting indiscriminately in her area or inadvertently by an IDF soldier.”

The statement blamed the Palestinian Authority for denying Israeli requests to share access to the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, saying it was “telling of their motives.”

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, in a separate statement, called the U.N. investigation “unfounded.”

The U.N. findings — along with the investigations by The Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN and the investigative group Bellingcat — added to pressure on the White House to address Abu Akleh’s killing, just weeks before President Biden is scheduled to travel to Israel.

On Thursday, 24 U.S. senators had sent a letter to Biden urging that the United States be “directly involved in investigating” Abu Akleh’s death. The letter — which cited a lack of progress toward the establishment of an independent investigation, and the fact that Abu Akleh was an American — said the U.S. government had “an obligation to ensure that a comprehensive, impartial, and open investigation into her shooting death is conducted.”

A spokeswoman for the National Security Council said the United States “is not currently conducting an official investigation” into the killing but is “working to bridge cooperation between the parties.” The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic discussions, declined to answer directly when asked if Biden would raise Abu Akleh’s killing with the Israelis.

On the day Abu Akleh was killed, IDF spokesman Ran Kochav first acknowledged the incident in a 7:45 a.m. tweet, saying: “The possibility that journalists were injured, possibly by Palestinian gunfire, is being investigated.”

Later that morning, he told Army Radio that it was “likely” that a Palestinian gunman was responsible. By the end of the day, Gantz retreated from those assertions and said an Israeli soldier could also have been responsible for firing the fatal shot.

A week after the killing, however, the army said that it had not found evidence of criminal conduct in the death. As a result, officials said, there would be no investigation of the shooting by military police — a process that would have resulted in the public release of the investigation’s findings.

“More than six weeks after the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and injury of her colleague Ali al-Sammoudi in Jenin on 11 May 2022, it is deeply disturbing that Israeli authorities have not conducted a criminal investigation,” the statement from the U.N. human rights office said.

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

Palestinians and human rights workers have said for years that Israel’s military justice system creates an atmosphere of impunity for soldiers suspected of violent crimes against Palestinians, including killings.

The last time an Israeli soldier was prosecuted in a military court was in 2016. The soldier, a combat medic, was captured on video fatally shooting a Palestinian assailant who lay wounded on the ground. The Israeli soldier, who was 19 years old, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, spurring outrage nearly across the political spectrum, from Palestinians who said it was a mock trial to many Israelis who argued that a soldier in a difficult combat situation could not be prosecuted. Others said the controversy around the trial itself reflected the deep-seated normalization of Israel’s violent occupation of Palestinians.

Shlomo Lecker, an Israeli lawyer who has represented Palestinian families whose relatives have been killed by Israeli soldiers, said he believed international pressure in Abu Akleh’s case would only make a thorough and transparent investigation less likely. The army, since the beginning, was committed to protecting its institutional norms, he said, in which soldiers “have gotten used to the fact that they will never face punishment.”

“The army is betting on the fact that diplomats, and the others pushing for an investigation, will give up soon enough,” he added.

The Post’s examination — based on a review of five dozen videos, social media posts and photos of the event; two physical inspections of the area; and two independent acoustic analyses — found that an Israeli soldier probably shot and killed Abu Akleh. The audio analyses of what was likely the fatal gunshot pointed to one person shooting from an estimated distance that nearly matched the span between the journalists and the IDF convoy.

The Post’s review found no evidence of activity of armed Palestinians in the immediate vicinity of where Abu Akleh, along with a group of other journalists, was standing before the killing.

“Perpetrators must be held to account,” the U.N. statement said.

Fahim reported from Istanbul. Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington contributed to this report.