Independent investigation finds journalist killed by Israeli fire

JERUSALEM (AP) — Several independent groups have launched their own investigations as Israel and the Palestinians spar over the investigation into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. An open-source research group said their preliminary findings backed up a Palestinian witness who said she was killed by an Israeli fire.

The results of these investigations could help shape international opinion on who is responsible for Abu Ackley’s death, especially as the official Israeli military investigation drags on. Israel and the Palestinians are locked in a narrative battle that has put Israel on the defensive.

Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American veteran of a 25-year satellite channel, was killed last Wednesday while reporting on an Israeli military attack on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. She is a household name throughout the Arab world, best known for documenting the hardships of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, now entering its sixth decade.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he had spoken to Abu Ackley’s family to express his condolences and respect for her work, “and the need for an immediate and credible investigation into her death.”

Palestinian officials and witnesses, including journalists with her, said she was killed by army fire. The military initially said the Palestinian gunman may have been responsible, but has since backed off and now says she, too, may have been hit by the wrong Israeli fire.

Israel has called for a joint investigation with the Palestinians, saying the bullets must be analyzed by ballistic experts before firm conclusions can be drawn. Palestinian officials refused, saying they did not trust Israel and invited other countries to join the investigation. Rights groups say Israel has a poor record in investigating misconduct by its security forces.

A number of research and human rights groups have launched their own investigations as the two sides feud over the Abu Akler investigation.

Over the weekend, Bellingcat, an international consortium of researchers based in the Netherlands, released an analysis of video and audio evidence collected on social media. The material was sourced from the Palestinian and Israeli military, and the analysis looked at factors such as timestamps, video location, shadows, and forensic audio analysis of gunfire.

The group found that while both the gunman and Israeli soldiers were in the area, evidence supported eyewitness accounts that Israeli fire killed Abu Akleh.

“From what we were able to review, the IDF (Israeli soldiers) were in the closest position and had the clearest view of Abu Akleh,” said Giancarlo Fiorella, lead researcher on the analysis.

Bellingcat is one of a growing number of companies using “open source” information such as social media video, security camera recordings and satellite imagery to reconstruct events.

Fiorella acknowledged that without evidence such as bullets, weapons used by the military and GPS positioning of the Israeli army, the analysis cannot be 100% certain. But he said the emergence of additional evidence usually supports preliminary conclusions and rarely overturns them.

“That’s what we do when we don’t have access to these things,” he said.

Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said it was also conducting its own analysis. The group played a key role last week in the military’s backtracking from initially claiming that the Palestinian gunman appeared to be responsible for her death.

Israel’s claims are based on social media videos in which a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a Jenin alley before other militants ran up claiming they had shot a soldier. Since no soldiers were injured that day, the gunman may have been referring to Abu Ackley, who was wearing a protective helmet and bulletproof jacket, the military said.

A B’Tselem researcher traveled to the area and filmed a video showing the Palestinian gunman about 300 meters (yards) from where Abu Akleh was shot, separated by a series of walls and alleys.

Dror Sadot, a spokesman for the group, said B’Tselem has begun collecting witness testimony and may try to reconstruct the shooting from live video. But she said it was too soon to conclude who was behind the shooting.

Sadot said any bullets need to be matched to the barrel. The Palestinians refused to release bullets, and it was unclear whether the military confiscated the weapons used that day.

“The bullet itself can’t say much” because it could have been fired by either party, she said. “What can be done is match the bullet to the barrel,” she said.

The Israeli military did not respond to an interview request to discuss the status of its investigation.

Jonathan Conricus, a former Israeli military spokesman and military expert, said reconstructing the gunfight in dense urban terrain was “very complicated” and said forensic evidence such as bullets was crucial to drawing firm conclusions. He accused the Palestinian Authority of refusing to cooperate for propaganda purposes.

“Without bullets, any investigation can only draw partial and questionable conclusions,” Conricus said. “One might argue that the Palestinian Authority’s strategy is exactly this: to deny Israel the ability to cleanse itself, while exploiting global sympathy for the Palestinian cause.”

Meanwhile, Israeli police launched an investigation over the weekend into officers who attacked mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral, causing the undertaker to nearly drop her coffin.

Sunday’s newspapers were filled with criticism of the police and what was described as a public relations collapse.

“Friday’s footage is the exact opposite of good judgment and patience,” commentator Oded Shalom wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. “It documents appalling unbridled brutality and violence.”

Neil Hasson, who reports on Jerusalem affairs for Haaretz daily, said the problems were deeper than the image of Israel.

“This is one of the most extreme visual expressions of the occupation and the humiliation experienced by the Palestinian people,” he wrote.


Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Matthew Lee in Berlin contributed to this report.

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