JERUSALEM — The Israeli army said Monday there was a “high possibility” that a soldier killed a well-known Al Jazeera journalist in the occupied West Bank last May, as it announced the results of its investigation into the killing.
In a briefing to reporters, a senior military official said a soldier opened fire after mistakenly identifying Shireen Abu Akleh as a militant. But he provided no evidence to back up the Israeli claim that Palestinian gunmen were present in the area and said no one would be punished. He also did not address video evidence showing the area to be quiet before Abu Akleh was shot.
The conclusions were the closest Israel has come to taking responsibility for her death and followed a series of investigations by media organizations and the United States that concluded Israel either fired, or most likely had fired, the deadly shot. But they were unlikely to put the matter to rest.
“He misidentified her,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under military briefing guidelines. “His reports in real time…absolutely point to a misidentification.”
Abu Akleh was wearing a helmet and a vest identifying her as press when she was killed in May while covering Israeli military raids in the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem accused the army of carrying out a whitewash.
“It was no mistake. It’s policy,” the group said.
Al Jazeera’s local bureau chief, Walid Al-Omari, accused the army of trying to escape responsibility. “This is clearly an attempt to circumvent the opening of a criminal investigation,” he told The Associated Press.
The 51-year-old Palestinian-American had covered the West Bank for two decades and was a well-known face across the Arab world. The Palestinians, and Abu Akleh’s family, have accused Israel of intentionally killing her, and her death remains a major point of contention between the sides.
The official said the military could not conclusively determine where the fire emanated from, saying there may have been Palestinian gunmen in the same area as the Israeli soldier. But he said the soldier shot the journalist “with very high likelihood” and did so by mistake.
The official did not explain why witness accounts and videos showed no militant activity in the area, as well as no gunfire in the vicinity until the barrage that struck Abu Akleh and wounded another reporter.
He also did not say why the investigation had taken some four months, though he said the Israeli military chief asked for more information after an initial probe. The official said the investigation had been shared with the military’s independent prosecutor, who had decided not to launch a criminal probe. That means no one will be charged in the shooting.
Abu Akleh’s family criticized the investigation, saying the army “tried to obscure the truth and avoid responsibility” for the killing.
“Our family is not surprised by this outcome since it’s obvious to anyone that Israeli war criminals cannot investigate their own crimes. However, we remain deeply hurt, frustrated and disappointed,” they said in a statement. The family also reiterated its call for an independent U.S. investigation and a probe by the International Criminal Court.
Rights groups say Israeli investigations of the shooting deaths of Palestinians often languish for months or years before being quietly closed and that soldiers are rarely held accountable.
Israel has said she was killed during a complex battle with Palestinian militants and that only a forensic analysis of the bullet could confirm whether it was fired by an Israeli soldier or a Palestinian militant. However, a U.S.-led analysis of the bullet last July was inconclusive as investigators said the bullet had been badly damaged.
An Associated Press reconstruction of her killing lent support to witness accounts that she was killed by Israeli forces. Subsequent investigations by CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post reached similar conclusions, as did monitoring by the office of the U.N. human rights chief.
Abu Akleh rose to fame two decades ago during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli rule. She documented the harsh realities of life under Israeli military rule—now well into its sixth decade with no end in sight—for viewers across the Arab world.
Israeli police drew widespread criticism from around the world when they beat mourners and pallbearers at her funeral in Jerusalem on May 14. An Israeli newspaper reported that a police investigation found wrongdoing by some of its officers, but said those who supervised the event will not be seriously punished.
Jenin has long been a bastion of Palestinian militants, and several recent deadly attacks inside Israel have been carried out by young men from in and around the town. Israel frequently carries out military raids in Jenin, which it says are aimed at arresting militants and preventing more attacks.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has built settlements where nearly 500,000 Israelis live alongside nearly 3 million Palestinians. The Palestinians want the territory to form the main part of a future state.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.