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Independent probe points to Israeli bullet in Shireen Abu Akleh's killing

  • 16 May 2022

Bellingcat, a Dutch-based international consortium of researchers, says its evidence supports witness accounts that Israeli troops fired at and killed Al Jazeera journalist last week.

Human rights groups says Israel has a poor record of investigating wrongdoing by its security forces. ( AP Archive )

As Israel and the Palestinians wrangle over the investigation into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, several independent groups have launched their own probes, with one open-source research team saying its initial findings lent support to Palestinian witnesses who said she was killed by Israeli fire.

The outcome of these investigations could help shape international opinion over who is responsible for Abu Akleh's death, particularly if an official Israeli military probe drags on. Israel and the Palestinians are locked in a war of narratives that already has put Israel on the defensive.

Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American and a 25-year veteran of the satellite channel, was killed last Wednesday by Israeli troops, according to several eyewitnesses and her TV channel, while covering an Israeli military raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. She was a household name across the Arab world, known for documenting the hardship of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, now in its sixth decade.

Palestinian officials and witnesses, including journalists who were with her, say she was killed by the Israeli army. The military, after initially saying Palestinian resistance fighters might have been responsible, later backtracked and now says she may also have been hit by errant Israeli fire.

READ MORE: Calls for probe into killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh grow louder

Israel's poor record of investigation

Israel has called for a joint investigation with the Palestinians, saying the bullet must be analysed by ballistics experts to reach firm conclusions. Palestinian officials have refused, saying they don't trust Israel, and have invited other countries to join the investigation. Human rights groups say Israel has a poor record of investigating wrongdoing by its security forces.

With the two sides at loggerheads over the Abu Akleh probe, several research and human rights groups have launched their own investigations.

Over the weekend, Bellingcat, a Dutch-based international consortium of researchers, published an analysis of video and audio evidence gathered on social media. The material came from both Palestinian and Israeli military sources, and the analysis looked at such factors as time stamps, the locations of the videos, shadows and a forensic audio analysis of gunshots.

The group found that while Palestinian fighters and Israeli soldiers were both in the area, the evidence supported witness accounts that Israeli troops fired at and killed Abu Akleh.

"Based on what we were able to review, the IDF (Israeli soldiers) were in the closest position and had the clearest line of sight to Abu Akleh," said Giancarlo Fiorella, the lead researcher of the analysis.

Bellingcat is among a growing number of firms that use "open source" information, such as social media videos, security camera recordings and satellite imagery, to reconstruct events.

Fiorella acknowledged that the analysis cannot be 100 percent certain without such evidence as the bullet, weapons used by the army and GPS locations of Israeli forces. But he said the emergence of additional evidence typically bolsters preliminary conclusions and almost never overturns them.

"This is what we do when we don't have access to those things," he said.

READ MORE: How Shireen Abu Akleh inspired a generation of female reporters

'Match a bullet to the barrel'

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said it too is conducting its own analysis. The group last week played a key role in the military's backtracking from its initial claims that Palestinian fighters appeared to be responsible for her death.

The Israeli claim was based on a social media video in which a Palestinian fighter fires into a Jenin alleyway, and then other fighters come running to claim they have shot a soldier. The army said that because no soldiers were hurt that day, the fighters might have been referring to Abu Akleh, who was wearing a protective helmet and flak jacket.

A B’Tselem researcher went to the area and took a video showing that the Palestinian fighters were some 300 metres away from where Abu Akleh was shot, separated by a series of walls and alleyways.

Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for the group, said B'Tselem has begun gathering testimonies from witnesses and may attempt to reconstruct the shooting with videos from the scene. But she said at this point, it has not been able to come to a conclusion about who was behind the shooting.

Sadot said any bullet would need to be matched to the barrel of the gun. The Palestinians have refused to release the bullet, and it is unclear whether the military has confiscated the weapons used that day.

"The bullet on its own can't say a lot” because it could have been fired by either side, she said. "What can be done is to match a bullet to the barrel," she said.

The Israeli military did not respond to interview requests to discuss the status of its probe.

Before Abu Akleh, 51, was killed near him, her colleague Ali Al Samoudi had been wounded by the Israeli forces.

Al Samoudi told media last week that they and the other journalists had made sure to stand in an area visible to the Israeli forces so the soldiers know their location.

As Abu Akleh arrived, the Israeli troops fired the first bullet toward them, which did not hit anyone, he recounted. The second bullet struck him in the shoulder, he said, after which Abu Akleh shouted: "Ali got injured."

The third bullet was the deadly round that hit Abu Akleh in the head, killing her, said Al Samoudi.

Another witness, Shatha Hanaysha, a 29-year-old journalist, was next to Abu Akleh when she was shot and killed.

"It was an Israeli sniper that shot at us. We were not caught up in crossfire with Palestinian fighters like the Israeli army claimed," she told Middle East Eye news website.

READ MORE: Global outcry after Israeli police beat mourners at Abu Akleh's funeral

Probe into funeral attack

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

Newspapers on Sunday were filled with criticism of the police and what was portrayed as a public relations debacle.

"The footage from Friday is the very opposite of good judgment and patience," commentator Oded Shalom wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "It documented a shocking display of unbridled brutality and violence."

Nir Hasson, who covers Jerusalem affairs for the Haaretz daily, said the problems run much deeper than Israel's image.

"This was one of the most extreme visual expressions of the occupation and the humiliation the Palestinian people experience," he wrote.

READ MORE: UN Security Council unanimously condemns killing of Palestinian journalist

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