CNN suggests Al Jazeera journalist was killed in ‘targeted attack’ by IDF troops

CNN said Tuesday it had conducted its own inquiry into the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin on May 11, and said the results suggested she was deliberately targeted by Israeli forces.

The IDF said the allegation was “entirely unfounded.”

Abu Akleh was shot dead while covering clashes between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen during an IDF operation in the city. The Israel Defense Forces has not ruled out that Abu Akleh was accidentally killed by Israeli fire, but says Palestinian gunmen may also be at fault. It has said it can make no determination while Palestinians refuse to hand over the bullet that killed her for forensic examination.

In an item headlined, “‘They were shooting directly at the journalists’: New evidence suggests Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in targeted attack by Israeli forces,” the network said it had conferred with experts to support the claim.

First, using audio from a video of the moment the journalist was killed, the network said forensic audio experts had identified that the shots came from about 200 meters away — the alleged distance between Abu Akleh and nearby IDF forces at the time of her shooting.

Second, it cited Chris Cobb-Smith, a security consultant and British army veteran the network identified as a firearms expert. Cobb-Smith looked at photos of bullet markings left on a tree just where Abu Akleh was hit, and said that they were indicative of controlled, targeted shots rather than stray bullets.

“The number of strike marks on the tree where Shireen was standing proves this wasn’t a random shot, she was targeted,” he said, while noting that evidence of Palestinian fire during the exchanges showed “random sprays.”

A CNN headline, on the network’s webite, regarding the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, May 24, 2022

And he added that at a distance of 200 meters, there was “no chance” that random fire would leave such tightly knit marks.

“From the strike marks on the tree, it appears that the shots, one of which hit Shireen, came from down the street from the direction of the IDF troops. The relatively tight grouping of the rounds indicate[s] Shireen was intentionally targeted with aimed shots and not the victim of random or stray fire.”

The Israel Defense Forces has said that any deadly Israeli fire would have been accidental.

An unnamed senior Israeli security official told CNN: “In no way would the IDF ever target a civilian, especially a member of the press.”

In a statement later Tuesday on the CNN report, the IDF said it had been thoroughly investigating the incident since it occurred and that its interim findings had been unable to definitively determine the origin of the fatal shot; it reiterated that an examination of the bullet would likely enable a firm determination, but that the Palestinian Authority has refused to make the bullet available. “The claim that the gunfire was aimed [at Abu Akleh] is entirely unfounded,” it said.

Meanwhile, almost two weeks after the death of the veteran Palestinian-American reporter, The Associated Press said Tuesday that a reconstruction it carried out lends support to assertions from both Palestinian authorities and Abu Akleh’s colleagues that the bullet that cut her down came from an Israeli gun.

It did not, however, accuse Israel of intentionally targeting her. It also stressed that its findings were indefinite.

Any conclusive answer is likely to prove elusive because of the severe distrust between the two sides, each of which is in sole possession of potentially crucial evidence.

According to AP, multiple videos and photos taken on the morning of May 11 show an Israeli convoy parked just up a narrow road from Abu Akleh, with a clear line of sight. They show the reporters and other bystanders in real time taking cover from bullets fired from the direction of the convoy.

It said the only confirmed presence of Palestinian gunmen was on the other side of the convoy, some 300 meters (328 yards) away, mostly separated from Abu Akleh by buildings and walls. Israel says at least one gunman was between the convoy and the journalists, but it has not provided any evidence or indicated the shooter’s location. Palestinian witnesses say there were no gunmen in the area and no gunfire until the barrage that struck Abu Akleh and wounded another reporter.

Those witnesses say they do not doubt that Israeli soldiers killed Abu Akleh, now celebrated as a martyr to some journalists and the Palestinian cause. The Israeli military says she was killed in a complex shootout between soldiers and gunmen, and that only a full investigation — including forensic analysis of the bullet — could prove who fired the fatal shot.

Palestinian mourners carry the body of veteran Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh out of the office of Al Jazeera after friends and colleagues paid their respects, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 11, 2022. (AP/Nasser Nasser, File)

The Palestinians have refused to hand over the bullet or cooperate with Israel in any way on the investigation, but say they will share the results of their own probe with any other party.

Abu Akleh’s death has further heightened tensions amid a wave of violence and raised new concerns over the safety of reporters in the West Bank, which the Palestinians want as the main part of their future state.

AP reporters visited the location where Abu Akleh was killed on the edge of the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank and the scene of a nearby battle with Israeli forces captured on a video shared by Israel.

The agency said interviews with five Palestinian eyewitnesses corroborate an analysis by the Dutch-based Bellingcat research group indicating Israeli forces were closer to Abu Akleh and had a better line of sight. The group, which specializes in geolocating events in war zones by analyzing photos and videos shared online, pinpointed the location of the convoy just up a narrow road from where Abu Akleh was killed.

The road and the convoy

Reporters who were with Abu Akleh say that when they arrived at the scene it was quiet, with no clashes or gunmen in the immediate area. Ali Samoudi, an Al Jazeera producer from Jenin, said he called people inside the camp to get an idea of what was happening.

Then they proceeded to a long, narrow road sloping up from an open area to a cluster of concrete buildings where an Israeli army convoy was parked some 200 meters (219 yards) away. Each reporter was wearing a helmet and a blue vest labeled “PRESS” in large lettering.

“We stepped out into the open so they could see us,” Samoudi told the AP. “They didn’t indicate that we should leave, so we went slowly, walking forward about 20 meters [22 yards].”

Flowers, flags, and other memorabilia create a makeshift memorial at the site where veteran Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed, in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 19, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Shatha Hanaysheh, a local photographer, said they remained there for five to 10 minutes, talking and even laughing in full view of the soldiers. A video that appears to capture the first shots supports her account.

Samoudi said the soldiers fired a warning shot, causing him to duck and run backwards. The second shot hit him in the back. Abu Akleh was shot in the head and appears to have died instantly. Hanaysheh sheltered on the other side of a tree next to a wall. Tree bark on the side facing the army appears to have been chipped away by gunfire or shrapnel.

“We saw that the gunfire came from the army,” Hanaysheh said. “When Ali and Shireen and I ran for cover, we ran away from them.”

Sharif Azer, a local resident who was on his way to work, heard the gunfire and ran over to help. He can be seen in another widely shared video climbing over the wall where Hanaysheh was taking cover and helping her to escape.

Several gunshots can be heard after Abu Akleh was killed, as people take cover on either side of the road. When Azer moves away from the tree, shots ring out and he backs up, indicating they are coming from the army’s position. He says he could see the soldiers pointing their guns.

“They fired on us more than once. Every time someone approached, they fired at them,” he said.

A possible scenario

The Israeli military’s initial inquiry into the shooting said there were two possibilities.

In the first, it said Palestinian gunmen on the other side of the convoy, to the south, were recklessly firing hundreds of rounds, one of which could have struck Abu Akleh, who was some 300 meters (328 yards) away. Bullets fired from an M16 can travel well over 1,000 meters (1,094 yards).

But the military hasn’t provided any visual evidence, aside from footage of Palestinian gunmen firing from another location that did not have a line of sight toward Abu Akleh.

AP said it did not uncover any evidence to support this first scenario. It said the second scenario, at this point, appears more plausible.

Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, an army spokesman, says there was at least one Palestinian gunman on the road between the troops and the journalists, “in the vicinity” of Abu Akleh. That gunman allegedly fired multiple times at one of the army vehicles, and a soldier inside it returned fire with a rifle equipped with a telescopic scope.

The army’s probe has zeroed in on that rifle, Shefler said, though it still believes a stray Palestinian bullet could have killed her.

The army says it cannot provide an answer without comparing the bullet to the weapon. “Without the possibility of examining the bullet, the doubt remains,” Maj. Gen. Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, the army’s chief prosecutor, said in a speech Monday.

She said that because the killing occurred in an active combat zone, there would be no decision on whether to open a criminal investigation until the initial probe is complete.

Videos posted on social media that day contain sounds of heavy gunfire in other parts of Jenin, including near a house surrounded by Israeli military vehicles conducting an arrest raid about 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) away from where Abu Akleh was shot.

All of the witnesses who spoke to the AP insisted there were no gunmen in the area between the reporters and the army. The area is mostly open, but a gunman could have potentially sheltered unseen in the brush-filled cemetery on the road’s eastern side or an open-air brick factory next to where the journalists were located.

No gunmen can be seen in any of the videos showing the journalists’ location. The Palestinian Health Ministry says there were no other Palestinians killed or wounded that day in Jenin. Local media also have no record of any other Palestinian casualties.

Separate investigations

Almost immediately after the shooting, Israel called for a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, and asked it to hand over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh for ballistic analysis. Israel invited Palestinian and American representatives to participate in the investigation.

The PA refused, saying Israel cannot be trusted to investigate itself. Within hours of the shooting, both the PA and Al Jazeera accused Israel of deliberately targeting Abu Akleh, but provided no evidence for the claim, which Israel strongly denies.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians are conducting a “pure, professional investigation” and will share the results with international bodies. He declined to provide details of the probe or address questions about trying to match the bullet to the weapon.

“We are sure that Israel is responsible for the killing, and we have evidence, proof, and witnesses confirming that,” Nabil Abu Rdeneh told the AP. “We have no confidence in Israeli investigations because their goal is to falsify the facts.”

Critics say that Israeli investigations into shootings of Palestinians often drag on for months or years before being quietly shelved, and rights groups say soldiers are rarely held accountable.

Israeli authorities initially suggested the Palestinian fighters in the video they shared might have killed Abu Akleh. They backtracked after B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, circulated another video showing it was virtually impossible for them to have shot her since the two locations were hundreds of meters apart and separated by buildings and walls. B’Tselem is still conducting its own investigation.

Palestinian investigators are in possession of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, which was recovered from her head. Samoudi says the bullet that struck him shattered, leaving some fragments inside his back. It’s unclear if any other fragments have been recovered.

Palestinians visit the site where veteran Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed, in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 18, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Lior Nadivi, a former crime scene investigator and firearms examiner for the Israeli police, said the bullet that killed Abu Akleh would potentially contain a trove of evidence.

A deformation might indicate it ricocheted. Markings would show the type of weapon, and a microscopic signature could potentially be used to match the bullet to a specific firearm. He said there was “no way” to tamper with a bullet without leaving obvious marks on it.

But Nadivi said it was also important to have a full picture of what happened.

“You need to position all the people who fired in the general direction of this journalist and then try to analyze what happened to each bullet,” he said. “There is a lot of information that you need, and right now we’ve got nothing.”

In the end, it could prove impossible to know exactly what happened; neither side is likely to accept the conclusions reached by the other. The United States, Israel’s closest ally, says it is “working to bridge cooperation between the parties,” but there’s no indication of any progress.

Palestinian journalist Ali Al Samoudi visits a makeshift shrine at the site where veteran Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed while covering an Israeli raid, in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 19, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Last week, 57 House Democrats called for an FBI investigation. Both Israel and the PA would have to request US assistance, and neither appears to have done so. Israel has invited the US to participate in an observer role.

In theory, each side could submit evidence to a third party for analysis. But neither side has expressed interest in that kind of investigation, and each could accuse the other of tampering with evidence if it didn’t like the result.

Samoudi visited the scene of the killing in a wheelchair on Thursday, as supporters set up a makeshift memorial. Hanaysheh came as well, but kept her distance from the tree where she was nearly killed, saying she was still too traumatized to approach it.

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