Abu Akleh probe inconclusive, but the damage is still done - analysis

The assumption for those who hadn’t already jumped to conclusions, was that the truth would remain unknown, except for possibly the Palestinian Authority.

 People light candles during a vigil in memory of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid, outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, May 16, 2022 (photo credit: REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA)
People light candles during a vigil in memory of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid, outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, May 16, 2022
(photo credit: REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA)

The forensic examination of the bullet that struck Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh came to an inconclusive conclusion on Monday. But for Israel, the damage was already done.

The Al Jazeera reporter, one of best-known journalists in the Middle East, was already an icon in some circles. But she became a Palestinian martyr when she was shot on May 11.

Supporters of the Palestinian cause immediately assumed Israel killed her, and many claimed it was intentional. She received attention far out of proportion to any of her many colleagues killed in conflicts around the world, including in recent months in Ukraine.

CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times published investigations based on open-source intelligence (OSINT), reaching the conclusion that Israel did it. The Times, at least, admitted what was true of all three pieces: that there was much still unknown, the matter remains inconclusive, and there is even some evidence – such as the distance from which Abu Akleh was likely shot – that contradicts the theory that Israel was to blame.

Some Israel advocates – the veteran blog Elder of Ziyon was a leader on this front – thoroughly followed up on the media reports, poking holes in many of their claims and pointing to bias among some of their partner OSINT organizations.

The assumption for those who hadn’t already jumped to conclusions was that the truth would remain unknown to all, except for possibly the Palestinian Authority, because it refused to hand over the bullet. The PA said unequivocally, from day one, that Israel had killed her.

Washington, which has an interest not only for foreign-policy reasons but also because Abu Akleh is a US citizen, finally convinced Ramallah to give it the bullet for an independent examination on Sunday.

In addition to the IDF’s previous investigation efforts, Israel also conducted its own probe of the bullet with a US observer and checked the DNA on it to make sure it was, indeed, the one that killed Abu Akleh and not a red herring.

In the end, both the State Department and the IDF said the forensic examination was inconclusive because of damage to the bullet. Both also said it was clear that no IDF soldier intentionally shot Abu Akleh. However, the State Department said, based on examining the IDF and PA investigations as well as its own research, “gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible.” The IDF and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said they would continue investigating.

"Gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible”

State Department

It’s possible that an Israeli soldier shot Abu Akleh. The IDF statement leaves that possibility open, though it doesn’t go as far as the US to say it was “likely.” It seems as if we won’t get a conclusive answer to that question and will, unfortunately, have to live with the uncertainty.

State officials respond

When it comes to international pressure, the blowback may not be terrible. The US message ominously refers to “next steps and accountability.” But an American official said they meant what the IDF and Gantz had already said: to continue investigating as transparently and thoroughly as possible.

To the Palestinians and their fellow travelers, however, it doesn’t matter. The narrative that Israel is to blame has already taken hold. One can reasonably speculate that even if the investigation said Israel didn’t do it, they would say the Americans were biased and the probe was illegitimate. After all, no one dropped the claim that Israel did it on purpose, despite the State Department and IDF concluding otherwise.

The statement will likely bring another wave of negative reporting about Israel in broadcast, print and social media, with activists pushing messages in an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s statement, released soon after the simultaneous State Department and IDF messages, showed he is trying to do damage control.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid gives first cabinet meeting address  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Prime Minister Yair Lapid gives first cabinet meeting address (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Lapid expressed “sorrow” over Abu Akleh’s death and said Israel “recognizes the importance of freedom of the press and safeguarding journalists as they carry out their duties.” But he also pointed out that “hundreds of journalists have been killed in recent years in combat zones around the world.”

At the same time, Lapid sent the message that Israel won’t be cowed by the reaction to Abu Akleh’s unintentional killing.

“The IDF will continue fighting terror whenever and wherever necessary,” he said. “I give full and unequivocal backing to the IDF soldiers who risk their lives to defend the citizens of Israel from terrorism.”