Israeli forces likely killed Al Jazeera journalist - UN rights office

Israeli and Palestinian officials have exchanged recriminations over the incident, which has heightened tensions.

 picture of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli army gunfire during an Israeli raid, according to the Qatar-based news channel, is displayed in Al-Jazeera headquarter building in Doha, Qatar, May 11, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/IMAD CREIDI)
picture of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli army gunfire during an Israeli raid, according to the Qatar-based news channel, is displayed in Al-Jazeera headquarter building in Doha, Qatar, May 11, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/IMAD CREIDI)

An Israeli soldier fired the bullet that killed Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in May and Israeli authorities must hold a criminal investigation into the incident, a spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ravina Shamdasani said on Friday.

"It is deeply disturbing that Israeli authorities have not conducted a criminal investigation," she told reporters at UN headquarters in Geneva.

Her office had done its own probe into Abu Akleh's death, she explained, but that its efforts were not formally considered to be an inquiry.

"Our office inspected photo, video and audio material, visited the scene, consulted experts, reviewed official communications and interviewed witnesses," Shamdasani said.

"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 and not from indiscriminate firing by armed Palestinians, as initially claimed by Israeli authorities." 

 The body of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in during a live fire exchange between Palestinians and IDF in Jenin, is brought to the offices of the news channel in Ramallah in the West Bank, May 11, 2022. (credit: ABBAS MOMANI/POOL VIA REUTERS) The body of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in during a live fire exchange between Palestinians and IDF in Jenin, is brought to the offices of the news channel in Ramallah in the West Bank, May 11, 2022. (credit: ABBAS MOMANI/POOL VIA REUTERS)

The IDF

The IDF has said that she was killed accidentally while soldiers were shooting at Palestinian gunmen, and that it was unclear who killed her. The PA has said that there were no gunmen in the area and has accused Israel of deliberately targeting her.

The UN "found no information suggesting that there was activity by armed Palestinians in the immediate vicinity of the journalists," Shamdasani said. 

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have conducted investigations into the shooting of the 51-year-old veteran Al Jazeera journalist in May while she was on assignment in the Jenin refugee camp. 

The IDF has not ruled out the possibility that she was shot by a Palestinian gunman. The only way to determine the identity of the shooter, it has said, is to ballistically match the bullet with the gun. Israel has called on the PA to release the bullet which is in its possession so that it can see if it matches the guns of soldiers stationed in positions from which they could have shot Abu Akleh.

The PA has called on Israel to give it the relevant IDF gun so it can do its own ballistic test.

The political angle

Defense Minister Benny Gantz called again on the PA to hand over the bullet after hearing of the UN report.

"I once again call on the PA to deliver the bullet that hit Shireen to the State of Israel," he said. "That is what must be done in order to uncover the truth." 

The defense minister expressed his condolences over her death. "Her loved ones deserve to know the truth behind her tragic death," Gantz said. "We may only uncover the truth by conducting a thorough ballistic, forensic investigation and not through unfounded investigations such as the one published by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights." 

He recalled that IDF troops had been in Jenin to route out suspects involved in the spate of terror attacks in which over 18 people had been killed.

"IDF troops came under heavy gunfire during the events that led to Shireen’s death and responded accordingly," Gantz said.

The IDF put out a statement titled, “where is the bullet?” in which it explained that “the Palestinian Authority does, from time to time, conduct joint investigations with Israel” and “its refusal to do so now indicates what its true considerations are.”  The IDF added that "the Palestinian Authority does, from time to time, conduct joint investigations with Israel" and "its refusal to do so now indicates what its true considerations are."

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman tweeted that, "I don't know on what basis Shamdasani has decided that IDF bullets killed Shireen Abu Akleh, but it is deplorable and unacceptable.

"Israel has offered a solution that could have put an end to this debate but, in a not-so surprising way, the other side rejected it," he wrote.

"Their considerations are of no interest to me. The IDF needs to continue operating knowing it has full support," he concluded.

The left-wing group Yesh Din said that the investigation should not be left to the IDF and called for an international probe.

The UN's narrative

In Geneva, Shamdasani gave a narrative of how her office believes events unfolded on that May 11 morning. 

"Seven journalists, including Shireen Abu Akleh, arrived at the western entrance of the Jenin refugee camp to cover an ongoing arrest operation by Israeli Security Forces and the ensuing clashes.

"The journalists said they chose a side street for their approach to avoid the location of armed Palestinians inside the camp and that they proceeded slowly in order to make their presence visible to the Israeli forces deployed down the street," she said. 

"Our findings indicate that no warnings were issued and no shooting was taking place at that time and at that location."

At about 6:30 a.m., four of them, including Abu Akleh, turned onto a street leading to the camp wearing vests and helmets that marked them as journalists.

"Several single, seemingly well-aimed bullets were fired towards them from the direction of the Israeli Security Forces. One single bullet injured Ali Sammoudi in the shoulder, another single bullet hit Abu Akleh in the head and killed her instantly," Shamdasani said. 

"Several further single bullets were fired as an unarmed man attempted to approach Abu Akleh’s body and another uninjured journalist was sheltering behind a tree," she said. "Shots continued to be fired as this individual eventually managed to carry away Abu Akleh’s body." 

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters that “the results of the UN investigation confirm once again what we said from the start, that Israel is responsible for the killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and it must be held accountable for this crime.”

Reuters contributed to this report.