Why did the IDF react differently to Abu Akleh, Jana Zakarneh killings? - analysis

The IDF probably got the public relations response right this time, and the Jewish state will avoid an unforced error of negative media coverage.

A Palestinian walks in front of a mural depicting the slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh ahead of the visit of US President Joe Biden at Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, July 13, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS\Mussa Qawasma)
A Palestinian walks in front of a mural depicting the slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh ahead of the visit of US President Joe Biden at Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, July 13, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS\Mussa Qawasma)

In May, Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed during an altercation between the IDF and Palestinians near Jenin.

On Sunday night, 16-year-old Palestinian Jana Zakarneh was killed in the middle of another heated exchange of fire between the IDF and Palestinians in Jenin.

The main difference between the two events?

The main difference between the two events? In the first case, the IDF and Israel fought for four months before admitting fault; in the second case, they essentially took responsibility in just over half a day.

With Abu Akleh, the IDF initially blamed or implied blame for the killing on a misfire from the Palestinian side. Israel made waves over the Palestinians failure to submit her body for an independent autopsy and to promptly hand over any bullets that hit her. These seemed like decent initial talking points.

 Artist Jaber Abbas, 35 years old, applies final touches to a mural that he painted to pay tribute to Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank, in Nazareth, Israel May 16, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD) Artist Jaber Abbas, 35 years old, applies final touches to a mural that he painted to pay tribute to Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank, in Nazareth, Israel May 16, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

However, when CNN, The New York Times, human rights NGOs and even the US government all performed reviews of the incident, using a variety of testimony and video footage to prove that Abu Akleh was killed by an IDF soldier, Israel resisted and stuck to its guns through round after round of debate.

It was only in September that the IDF finally changed its story and took responsibility, saying that she was probably killed by an IDF soldier, but by mistake.

By then though, very few parties following the story were all that interested in what the IDF had to say, and many did not trust the credibility of the mistaken shot idea.

Unlike many tragic cases of killed civilians during wartime in Gaza, no one has shown that there were any armed Palestinians near where Abu Akleh was positioned. Also, she was wearing a clearly marked “press” jacket to avoid exactly what happened to her.

Moreover, she was also with a group of journalists so it is not as if she was alone in a strange spot (though Honest Reporting has produced social media evidence tying one of the key witnesses to support for Islamic Jihad).

It seems that a mix of slow fact-finding – and concern that biased Israeli critics always rush to blame the Jewish state for deliberate “executions” even when someone is shot in self-defense or by mistake – led to the painfully slow confession process.

In fact, there have been cases – one of the most famous was that of Muhammad al-Durrah in 2000 – where the IDF took responsibility within a short time based on limited video footage, but then later retracted its admission upon learning of additional contradictory information.

This history could still be haunting the IDF decades later.

Paradoxically, Abu Akleh’s fame may have also slowed down the admission process. Owning up would not have meant killing “just” another misplaced Palestinian civilian, but a world-famous journalist with American citizenship.

In contrast, the IDF admitted “likely” responsibility for shooting Zakarneh by mistake so quickly that it got push-back by the Border Police who have joint jurisdiction in some of these operations.

The Border Police said it was impossible for the IDF to have had enough certainty about what happened to put out a public statement when the only real evidence so far was one soldier who said he fired at and hit an armed Palestinian – who was in the same area as the girl.

What led to such different reactions by the IDF, especially in terms of speed?

So far it seems that the quick admission in the Zakarneh case was based on lessons learned from the Abu Akleh case.

If the IDF had originally thought that holding off taking responsibility and even actively raising counter narratives that the Palestinians had accidentally shot Abu Akleh would yield a better result, it saw this was not true.

In that sense, a quick admission in the Zakarneh case would seem to be learning from experience and could be seen as progress in the field of public relations.

In the scheme of outcomes, the IDF may have learned that it would be better to admit responsibility, especially to a mistaken and not deliberate shooting, and then need to retract the admission later (as happened with al-Durrah), than it is to look like one is covering up a deliberate killing, which was actually only an accident (like with Abu Akleh).

Further, the IDF may have successfully separated out the public relations issue from the legal issue.

From a legal perspective, the IDF legal division may continue to probe, and at some point may even reach a different conclusion than the initial one, in one direction or another.

But that is for the lawyers, history books and perpetuity.

The public relations battle is fought much faster. Israel can either be viewed as honest and erring on the side of admitting fault – even when the fog is not yet clear – or it can be viewed as having a culture of cover-up where admissions only come after a long, drawn-out process where everyone in the world has already decided Israel is guilty.

It seems the IDF realized that owning up quickly is an advantage which takes the air out of the story and out of follow-up stories. Journalists love digging into a cover-up to force powerful figures to change their narratives.

What is exciting about bringing out more details in an accident where the “aggressor” has already accepted responsibility? Not much.

Of course, the bigger problem is that Israel is stuck in a battle with groups of West Bank Palestinians, especially in Jenin, with no end yet in sight. This will continue to lead to the deaths of innocents on both sides. And Israel may not have a quick answer to solve that decades-long issue.

Still, at least for the moment, the IDF probably got the public relations response right this time, and the Jewish state will avoid an unforced error of negative media coverage – or at least it will avoid negative coverage above and beyond what it tends to get anyway.