IDF Abu Akleh probe is more than just an investigation

The IDF admitted this week that Shireen Abu Akleh was likely killed by an IDF bullet after conduction an investigation.

 IDF Abu Akleh probe is more than just an investigation. (photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)
IDF Abu Akleh probe is more than just an investigation.
(photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Four months after Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed during a firefight in Jenin, the IDF finally admitted what the world already knew: it was “with high probability” that it was an IDF bullet that silenced the prominent Palestinian journalist.

It took four months and several investigations by the Israeli military, a ballistic investigation, and an open-source media examination of the tragic event for the IDF to say that it, again, couldn’t unequivocally determine who fired the bullet.

“However, there is a high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire that was fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen,” read the statement released by the IDF.

The international community, from the start, placed the blame on the Israeli military, whose troops from the Duvdevan commando unit entered Jenin, as part of Operation Break the Wave, with the aim of arresting two wanted Palestinian suspects.

The operation took longer than planned, and the force came under heavy fire of thousands of bullets – some precise and others fired widely by gunmen who also threw explosive devices toward it.

 Palestinians attend a protest demanding US President Joe Biden to achieve justice for Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin, in Gaza City July 13, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA) Palestinians attend a protest demanding US President Joe Biden to achieve justice for Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin, in Gaza City July 13, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)

The force responded with live fire against individuals whom they had identified as gunmen.

A senior IDF officer who has personally followed the investigation from the beginning said that one soldier who was being fired upon misidentified Abu Akleh, despite the fact that he had a telescopic lens and she had been wearing a protective vest and helmet clearly marked “PRESS.”

The soldier, who was inside a David-type armored personnel carrier, was using a sniper rifle equipped with a telescopic sight when he fired toward what he identified as gunmen. One of the shots likely hit Abu Akleh in her head, killing her instantly.

Journalists like Abu Akleh, who cover wars and military operations, are no strangers to the dangers that their job entails. They knowingly risk their lives in order to share important stories with the world.

But the onus is also on the armed players to do their utmost to make sure the journalists are not harmed and that they don’t end up as the story.

Hundreds of journalists have been killed covering stories, some of them targeted by armed forces and others caught in the cross fire between warring parties. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 49 journalists have been killed worldwide in 2022, an increase from 45 in 2021.

According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, at least 30 journalists, mostly Palestinians, have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and Gaza since 2000. CPJ reports that 25 journalists were killed by IDF fire between 1992 and 2022.

Unlike Abu Akleh, other journalists in war zones rarely get their deaths investigated, including those killed by IDF fire.

While the IDF was from the start the likely suspect in Abu Akleh’s case, it carried out the investigation in a professional and thorough manner, after initially placing all the blame on Palestinian gunmen.

Unsurprisingly, though the IDF has taken late responsibility for her death, its conclusions were not accepted by many. A senior military officer who briefed foreign reporters on the probe was screamed at by several journalists on the call, many of whom knew Abu Akleh.

That no criminal investigation was opened against the soldier who likely fired the fateful shot shows that the military’s admission of responsibility is far from an admission of guilt.

The use of words like “high probability,” followed by the military’s emphasis that she could have been hit by a bullet fired by Palestinian gunmen – despite numerous eyewitnesses insisting that there were none in their immediate environment – shows that the IDF does not see itself as fully responsible for her death. She was in the middle of a combat zone, after all.

But the military must be applauded for carrying out the investigation, and the lack of any cooperation by the Palestinians in the investigation cannot be ignored either.

The Palestinian Authority from the beginning placed the blame squarely on the IDF, yet fought tooth and nail against working with Israel, and only after intense American pressure shared the bullet for a forensic ballistic investigation.

The lack of trust between the two sides is understandable, yet the heated Palestinian opposition to the investigation did not help to bring about a better result. The PA outright rejected the IDF probe, calling it “a new Israeli attempt to evade responsibility for her murder.”

Abu Akleh’s family also released a statement, saying that it was not surprised by the results, and that “it’s obvious to anyone that Israeli war criminals cannot investigate their own crimes.”

Born in Jerusalem, Abu Akleh was an American citizen, and the United States should have concurrently carried out its own investigation, and not just oversee the ballistic forensic examination of the bullet.

The State Department pushed Israel, both behind the scenes and in public, to release the findings of the investigation, and welcomed the results of the probe, even if they were the same as those of the initial investigation.

The IDF prides itself on its precision and the minimal civilian casualties in recent military operations, whether in the West Bank, Gaza, or the “war between the wars” campaign with its almost weekly airstrikes in Syria and beyond.

But, senior officers have said, when you are carrying out operations in complex and densely populated areas with a large number of civilians and intense gunfire targeting troops, there is always a chance that there could be civilian casualties, either by cross fire or, as in the case of Abu Akleh, by misidentification.

Of course, every civilian death in a war zone is tragic, but the IDF is not the only military in the world that has killed civilians. Yet, it is rare that such international condemnation is leveled at other militaries, including against Western militaries that have killed countless innocents in wars across the globe.

Abu Akleh's legacy

FOUR MONTHS after she was killed, one of the many legacies of Abu Akleh must be that militaries across the world take heed when civilians – especially journalists – are killed during battle. Investigations to find conclusive results must be carried out, and soldiers must be prosecuted should criminal intent be found.

In a statement provided to The Jerusalem Post, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said that “the freedom of the press and maintaining the safety of journalists are among the cornerstones of Israeli democracy and the IDF is committed to them.”

The military said that when an allegation arises of an injury to civilians or journalists caused by IDF forces “in violation of the law and regulations, a professional investigation procedure is carried out,” including criminal or disciplinary proceedings “when the circumstances justify it.

“Also, following the findings of the investigation, and depending on the circumstances of each case, in some cases command measures are taken against those involved,” the statement added.