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Palestinian outrage after US says journalist was killed by accident

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People lighting candles during a vigil in memory of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, in the West Bank, on May 16, 2022.


JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) – Palestinians expressed disappointment and anger at the United States on Tuesday (July 5), after Washington said it had concluded that Ms Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist killed while reporting in the occupied West Bank, was likely shot unintentionally by a bullet fired from Israeli military lines.

The US conclusion renewed Palestinian claims that the United States does not act as a fair broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, days before a visit to the region by US President Joe Biden, who has not reversed several Mr Trump administration moves that Palestinians deemed harmful to their hopes of independence.

The State Department assessment, released Monday, contradicted the official Israeli position that Ms Abu Akleh, a veteran television broadcaster shot dead in the city of Jenin on May 11, might have been hit by either Palestinian or Israeli fire.

But by asserting that she was shot by accident, and that the fatal bullet was too damaged to match it with a specific rifle, the United States also signalled that it did not expect Israel to pursue criminal charges against any particular soldier.

The US conclusions “provided the occupying state with a safe way of evading responsibility for killing Abu Akleh, using flimsy and feeble pretexts”, the Palestinian Authority’s ministry for foreign affairs said in a statement Tuesday.

The Biden administration said it had acted independently of Israel and had not exonerated Israel of involvement.

For years, Palestinians have questioned Washington’s ability to neutrally mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, citing strong US support for Israel at the United Nations and the size of US financial and military support to Israel, which has cumulatively received more US aid than any other country since World War II.

Against that backdrop, the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, including the city where the shooting occurred, initially ignored weeks of US pressure to share the bullet that had killed Ms Abu Akleh, 51, with Israeli investigators.

But the Palestinian Authority reversed positions Saturday, handing over the bullet after US officials had argued that a forensic examination might link the bullet to the rifle that fired it.

The inconclusive findings of the subsequent test, and the US assertion about the accidental nature of the killing, fuelled a sense of betrayal among Palestinians, resurfacing charges of pro-Israel bias in Washington.

Mr Ned Price, a spokesperson for the State Department, said Tuesday that US investigators had not favoured either the Israelis or the Palestinians. He added that the US analysis of the bullet was based on tests by independent foreign experts, not Israeli ballistics specialists.

“Our goal in this was not to please everyone,” Mr Price said.

The US intervention came days before a visit by Mr Biden to Israel and the West Bank, his first as head of state, in which he is expected to avoid making major statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It also occurred amid rising Palestinian frustration that the Biden administration has not cancelled several moves by President Donald Trump that Palestinians felt damaged efforts to create a Palestinian state.

Despite promising to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem to the Palestinians, closed under Mr Trump, the Biden administration has kept it shut following pressure from Israel.

The Palestinian mission in Washington, also shuttered under Mr Trump, remains closed. The Trump administration’s decision to reverse decades of US policy and recognise as legitimate Israeli settlements in the West Bank – considered illegal by most of the world – has not been formally rescinded.

Some Palestinians nevertheless had hoped the Biden administration might at least push Israel to conduct a criminal investigation into Ms Abu Akleh’s death. But this week, US officials have suggested that the US government is unlikely to push for an Israeli prosecution.

The State Department’s statement Monday stressed that the US had “no reason to believe” that Ms Abu Akleh’s killing was “intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances.”

Mr Price, the State Department spokesperson, said the United States wanted to see “a degree of accountability” for the killing, and for the Israeli army to introduce additional safeguards for civilians in future raids.

But pushed on the question of a criminal prosecution, Mr Price said the Biden administration is “not going to be prescriptive” about the exact form the Israeli investigation takes.

The absence of US pressure diminishes the likelihood of criminal charges being pursued against anyone in any forum.

The Israeli army’s advocate-general, Ms Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, has not ruled out a military prosecution and has said she will base her decision on the findings of the army’s internal investigation. But so far, Ms Tomer-Yerushalmi has said that she has yet to be convinced of the need for criminal charges.

“Opening an investigation is warranted when a criminal offence is suspected,” she said in a speech May 23. “In intense combat activity like the activity in Jenin, the death of a person in itself does not automatically raise such suspicion.”

The Palestinian Authority, which has accused Israel of intentionally targeting Ms Abu Akleh, has said it will refer the case to the International Criminal Court.

But such a process could take years and may never result in a prosecution. ICC prosecutors began a preliminary examination of the situation in the occupied territories in 2015 but did not start a formal investigation until 2021.

Seven years after the inquiry began, they have not opened any cases against individual Israelis or Palestinians in connection to crimes in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

The Israeli government says its army has a robust legal system, holds itself to the highest standards and will continue to investigate Ms Abu Akleh’s killing.

“The professional and moral truth are inseparable from our national resilience,” Mr Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister, said Monday in a statement. He added, “The defence establishment is committed to uncovering the truth.”

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