What must Israel learn from Abu Akleh killing? - analysis

It is likely that if Abu Akleh had not been American then this chain of events, including the admission that Israel was likely responsible, would not have occurred.

 Palestinians walk 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: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)
Palestinians walk 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

Three months after Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in Jenin, Israel has said she was likely killed by Israeli forces. Can Israel learn from this experience and do better next time?

This isn’t just a question of making sure civilians are not killed by mistake; it’s also about learning from what the soldiers did and how the authorities dealt with this incident.

The new language from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit on Monday was, “There is a high possibility that Shireen was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire that was fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen, during an exchange of fire in which life-risking, widespread and indiscriminate shots were fired toward IDF soldiers.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists does not think Israel’s findings are good enough.

“The Israel Defense Forces’ admission of guilt is late and incomplete. They provided no name for Shireen Abu Akleh’s killer and no other information than his or her own testimony that the killing was a mistake,” the CPJ said in a statement.

As Israel continues to look at this incident, a key question should be how subsequent operations can learn from the mistakes made here. This includes going back to the briefing before these kinds of raids take place and looking at what intelligence is being provided to the troops.

Israel has become proficient at precision strikes and at pushing intelligence to frontline forces. This is a key part of the Momentum five-year plan. A plethora of new technology and digital and artificial intelligence resources are being put in the hands of ground forces.

These kinds of technologies need to be employed correctly. Algorithms only work when you put in the correct data. So you have to ask the right questions and establish the right parameters around operations. Israel often conducts small raids like the one on Jenin, so it behooves Israeli forces to see what in the system can be improved.

 Shireen Abu Akleh (credit: AL JAZEERA) Shireen Abu Akleh (credit: AL JAZEERA)

When it comes to mistakes during military operations, Israel has become much better at investigating these incidents. However, it is likely that if Abu Akleh was not American, this chain of events, including the admission that Israel was likely responsible, would not have occurred as it did. In terms of the amount of time it took for Israel to admit the mistake, it’s not unusual for Western militaries serving democracies to take a long time to admit error.

For instance, an August 29, 2021, a drone strike in Kabul killed numerous civilians. The US admitted in mid-September 2021 that civilians were killed but waited until November of 2021 to assert that the strike didn’t break the law. The civilians in Kabul were not journalists and they weren’t Americans, so there wasn’t much pressure on the US to do much. There was no Committee to Protect Journalists to demand the name of the “killer.”

Indeed, it appears that when it comes to Israel’s peers around the world, no one ever demands militaries release the names of operators involved in similar operations. Turkey, a member of NATO, used a drone to kill four teenage girls playing volleyball in mid-August, and no one is demanding much of an explanation.

Therefore, we can conclude Israel’s investigatory timeline isn’t necessarily out of place when compared to the US, the UK or others. Nevertheless, this does not absolve Israel of responsibility. Israel prides itself on having good situational awareness when it carries out raids.

Anyone who listens to the IDF or Israeli defense companies discuss the use of new technology is aware that Israel is at the forefront of using artificial intelligence, new sensors and surveillance equipment to identify threats and neutralize them. The same technology – such as drones or sensors on vehicles that can identify a threat – is also used to avoid harming civilians. Israel has been fighting terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza for decades, and Israeli soldiers are experienced fighting in urban environments.

Israel has pioneered a wide range of technology to avoid harming civilians in these complex battle spaces. Some of that technology has ended up with foreign militaries.

Confronting a complex urban battlefield means not only using technology that identifies threats and differentiates from unarmed civilians, but also dealing with closing the “sensor to shooter” loop with a “human” in the loop faster. What that means is that someone or some technology senses a target – perhaps a vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade emerging from a side road – and then finds the right “effector” or munition to neutralize the target.

The goal is that the most precise and fast system will prevail, such that a soldier with a rifle, a vehicle with a gun, or a drone, can deal with the target. When civilians are in homes nearby, the military can’t afford an old-style battle where tanks pulverize blocks of homes to take out the RPG.

Warfare has come a long way from the battle of Verdun or Vietnam, when militaries bludgeoned each other and carpet-bombed and no one seemed to care about civilians. Today, it’s not enough to tell civilians to leave. In Israeli operations, there isn’t even time to warn people in places like Jenin; the IDF conducts “raids” and then leaves.

For instance, the IDF said on Monday that “overnight and this morning, IDF, ISA and Israel Border Police forces conducted counterterrorism activities in a number of locations in Judea and Samaria and in the Jordan Valley area, including the towns of Kufr al-Dik, Zeita, Deir Abu Masha’al and Beit Ummar.”

These operations are constant. In general, very few civilians are harmed. But what happens when they are? The goal for Israel is to harm no civilians. However, when civilians are harmed in an Israeli action, the lesson from the Abu Akleh investigation is that Israel should know very quickly when something goes wrong.

Days went asking the Palestinians to hand over the bullet. The US Embassy then released a statement in July discussing the forensic analysis of the incident and concluding Israel was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh.

“The USSC found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad on May 11, 2022, in Jenin, which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel.”

It was clear soon after the incident that Israeli forces were likely at fault. Israel is obviously sensitive to taking blame for incidents that might not be its fault. Israel has learned from incidents in Gaza going back decades that Palestinians will quickly blame Israel when civilians are harmed, including when Palestinians are at fault.

It can be argued that journalists and civilians will sometimes be harmed in gun battles between security forces and terrorists, just as they may be harmed when police and criminals have a shoot-out. But Israel can and should do better using its own technology to prevent these incidents and determine what goes wrong.

In this case, it is still not clear if what happened was a mistake that went beyond protocol. Did a soldier shoot without looking at a target? If the soldier was shooting at a threat, what was the threat? Too many questions remain unanswered months later.

These are the parts Israel can learn from. What kind of briefing can soldiers be given before going into Jenin that might improve their precision and controlled use of fire? What kind of intelligence might be provided regarding the presence of civilians and journalists?

Journalists are civilians, but they are also an added element during an incident. When journalists are present, it might be more likely for terrorists to use them as cover or exploit their presence. To what extent can Israel learn from this and prevent escalation that leads to innocent deaths? It’s plausible to conclude that Israel has learned quite a bit over the years and that the Jenin killing has already led to changes.

Nevertheless, it is important that Israel go back to the planning and execution of the raid on Jenin and see where there should have been changes. Was there one thing that could have been done to prevent this death, or were there a series of mistakes? Those are the places where Israel should look for the future.