The US state department said on Monday that unintentional Israeli gunfire “was likely responsible for the death” of a prominent Palestinian-American journalist shot dead in the occupied West Bank earlier this year.
Shireen Abu Akleh, who worked for the Al Jazeera network and was a household name across the Middle East, was killed while covering an Israeli military raid in Jenin on May 11.
Palestinian officials have blamed Israeli soldiers for her death, while Al Jazeera accused Israel of “deliberately targeting and killing our colleague”. Israeli officials have rejected any suggestion Abu Akleh was killed deliberately, and said she could have been hit by either Palestinian or Israeli fire during the shootout.
On Monday, the state department said that after reviewing Israeli and Palestinian investigations into the shooting, the US Security co-ordinator (USSC) had concluded that “gunfire from IDF (Israel Defense Forces) positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh”.
However, it added that there was “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 . . . which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel”.
Palestinian officials last week handed the bullet that killed Abu Akleh to US officials, paving the way for its examination this weekend.
However, the state department said that despite an “extremely detailed forensic analysis”, it had not been possible to reach a “definitive conclusion” on the bullet’s origin as it was too badly damaged.
The announcement drew a furious response from Abu Akleh’s family, which expressed incredulity that the probe had not been able to determine the origin of the bullet. They also took issue with the conclusion that the killing — which sparked outrage around the world and cast a spotlight on Israeli operations in the West Bank — had been an accident.
“[The] pronouncement that the killing was not intentional but rather the result of a purported Israeli counter-terrorism raid gone wrong . . . is frankly insulting to Shireen’s memory and ignores the history and context of the brutal and violent nature of what is now the longest military occupation in modern history,” the family wrote in a statement.
The IDF said it had ordered a continuation of the probe into the incident “using all available means”, and that a decision on whether to initiate a criminal investigation would be made once its probe was complete.
The state department’s announcement — which follows a statement last month by the UN human rights office that the shot that killed Abu Akleh came from the direction of Israeli forces — comes a week before US President Joe Biden is due to visit Israel as part of a trip to the Middle East.
The Biden administration has faced pressure from US lawmakers to bring about a conclusion to the investigation before his arrival in Israel.
Last month, 24 Democratic senators led by Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen sent a letter to the Biden administration urging the US to get involved in the investigation.
The state department said that it would “remain engaged with Israel and the Palestinian Authority on next steps” in the case, and that it “urge[d] accountability”.