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U.S. to probe killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, spurring outrage in Israel

Protesters hold candles and a photo of the slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Haifa, Israel, on May 11. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
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TEL AVIV — The United States will launch an investigation into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran Palestinian American journalist for Al Jazeera who was killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a statement Monday.

He added that Israel, which has published its own probe, will not cooperate with the proceedings.

The investigation comes as Israel prepares to swear in the most right-wing government in its history. It marks a pivot for the Biden administration, which, in the six months since Abu Akleh’s killing, has maintained that the journalist’s death was a “tragic result of a gunfight in the context of an Israeli raid in the West Bank,” for which the United States was not seeking a criminal investigation, the State Department said in September.

How Shireen Abu Akleh was killed

In July, a U.S.-led forensic and ballistics analysis concluded that Abu Akleh probably was killed by unintentional Israeli gunfire, despite wearing clearly marked press gear in an area far from Palestinian gunmen, according to eyewitnesses and fellow journalists interviewed by The Washington Post.

Two months later, Israel published similar conclusions, although it said that the bullet, which was handed over to Israeli ballistics experts in the presence of American officials in July, was too damaged to provide conclusive results. Palestinian Authority officials have called the killing an “assassination.”

In an English-language statement shared with reporters, Gantz said the U.S. Justice Department had decided to investigate Abu Akleh’s death, and he called the move “a grave mistake.”

He said that the Israeli army “has conducted a professional, independent investigation, which was presented to American officials with whom the case details were shared. I have delivered a message to US representatives that we stand by the [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers, and that we will not cooperate with an external investigation.”

“This is more than a grave mistake; it’s an outrage,” said Yaki Dayan, a former chief of staff in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “It’s basically a vote of no confidence on Israel.”

Israel’s Channel 14 was first to report Monday that the FBI had decided to open an investigation into the killing. A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department declined to comment.

Investigations by The Post, along with other news, investigative and human rights organizations, found that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh likely came from an Israeli soldier.

In recent months, Abu Akleh’s family has led a high-profile campaign for accountability, meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pope Francis.

“Shireen is an American citizen, and every American citizen deserves protection,” Anton Abu Akleh, Shireen’s brother, told The Post in June. He said he was in regular contact with U.S. representatives since his sister’s killing on May 11.

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

In a statement posted on Twitter on Tuesday, the Abu Akleh family called the U.S. announcement “an important step toward accountability and gets our family closer to justice for Shireen.”

In June, the U.N. human rights agency said the information it gathered as part of its own probe “is consistent with the finding that the shots that killed Abu Akleh … came from Israeli Security Forces and not from indiscriminate firing by armed Palestinians.”

The State Department later said it “could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet” that killed Abu Akleh, citing an inquiry overseen by the U.S. Security Coordinator in Jerusalem, an interagency body that works with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The USSC had access to the Israeli and Palestinian investigations, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

Abu Akleh’s death spurred rare attention to the dangerous reality for civilians in the occupied West Bank. Abu Akleh was shot in the head while reporting from the West Bank city of Jenin, the center of an intensifying Israeli military crackdown that began in response to a spate of Palestinian attacks in the spring.

On Tuesday, a Palestinian teenager killed three Israelis and injured three others in a stabbing and car ramming attack near the West Bank city of Ariel. The Palestinian man, 18, who had an Israeli work permit, according to Israeli media, was shot dead at the scene.

An FBI criminal investigation into Israeli military activity is unprecedented, said Dayan, the former Israeli Foreign Ministry chief of staff.

It risks further straining U.S.-Israeli relations after Israel’s Nov. 1 general election returned former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power, along with far-right partners who have promised to expel “disloyal” citizens of Israel and to annex the West Bank — land that Palestinians envision as part of a future state.

Members of the Biden administration have signaled that they will not engage with Netanyahu’s firebrand coalition partner, Itamar Ben Gvir, according to reports in Israeli media.

“We remain concerned … by the legacy of Kahane Chai and the continued use of rhetoric among violent, right-wing extremists,” said Price, the State Department spokesman, referring to Ben Gvir’s affiliation with an Israeli political party that was outlawed for being racist and anti-democratic.

The U.S. investigation, said Ronni Shaked, a professor at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is an attempt to place a “red line” on Israeli behavior in the West Bank and draw attention to a 55-year-old occupation of the West Bank that was barely mentioned in the recent Israeli elections.

“It’s a call,” Shaked said, “for Israel to wake up.”

Cunningham reported from Washington.