Independent probe points to Israeli fire at journalist’s death

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JERUSALEM – As Israel and the Palestinians argue over the investigation into the murder of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, several independent groups have launched their own investigations. An open-source investigative team said the initial findings supported Palestinian witnesses who said she was killed by Israeli fire.

The outcome of these investigations could help shape international opinion about who is responsible for Abu Akleh’s death, especially if an official Israeli military investigation continues. Israel and the Palestinians are engaged in a war of stories that has already placed Israel on the defensive.

Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American and 25-year veteran of the satellite broadcaster, was killed on Wednesday while reporting an Israeli military attack in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. A household name throughout the Arab world, she was known for documenting the hardships of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, now in its sixth decade.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday he had spoken to Abu Akleh’s family to express their condolences and respect for her work “and the need to conduct an immediate and credible investigation” into her death.

Palestinian officials and witnesses, including journalists who were with her, say she was killed by army fire. The military, after initially saying Palestinian gunmen may have been responsible, later bounced back and now says it may have also been hit by errant Israeli fire.

Israel has called for a joint investigation with the Palestinians and says the bullet needs to be analyzed by ballistics experts to reach definitive conclusions. Palestinian officials have refused, saying they do not trust Israel, and have invited other countries to join the investigation. According to human rights groups, Israel has a poor record of investigating wrongdoing by its security forces.

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

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

The group found that while gunmen and Israeli soldiers were both in the area, evidence supported the testimonies that Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli fire.

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

Bellingcat is among a growing number of companies that are using open source information, such as social media videos, CCTV footage and satellite images, to reconstruct events.

Fiorella acknowledged that the analysis cannot be 100% certain without evidence such as the bullet, weapons used by the military and GPS locations of Israeli troops. But he said the emergence of additional evidence usually supports and almost never undoes tentative conclusions.

“This is what we do when we don’t have access to those things,” he said.

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

The Israeli claim was based on a social media video in which a Palestinian gunman shoots into an alley in Jenin, then other militants come running to claim they shot a soldier. The army said that because no soldiers were injured that day, the gunmen may have been targeting Abu Akleh, who was wearing a protective helmet and anti-aircraft guns.

A B’Tselem investigator went to the area and recorded a video showing the Palestinian gunmen standing about 300 meters (yards) away from where Abu Akleh was shot, separated by a series of walls and alleys.

Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the group, said B’Tselem has begun collecting testimony from witnesses and may be trying to reconstruct the shooting with videos of the scene. But she said she couldn’t come to a conclusion at this point as to who was behind the shooting.

Sadot said that each bullet has to fit on the barrel of the gun. The Palestinians have refused to release the bullet and it is unclear whether the military confiscated the weapons used that day.

“The bullet by itself can’t say much,” because it could have been fired from either side, she said. “What you can do is put a bullet on the barrel,” she said.

The Israeli military did not respond to requests for interviews to discuss the status of the investigation.

Jonathan Conricus, a former Israeli military spokesman and expert on military affairs, said recreating a gun battle in densely populated urban terrain is “highly complex” and said forensic evidence, such as the bullet, is crucial to drawing firm conclusions. . He accused the Palestinian Authority of refusing to cooperate for propaganda purposes.

“Without the bullet, any study will be able to draw only partial and questionable conclusions,” Conricus said. “One might assume that the Palestinian Authority’s strategy is just that: to deny Israel the opportunity to clear its name, while leveraging global sympathy for the Palestinian cause.”

Meanwhile, Israeli police launched an investigation this weekend into the behavior of the officers who attacked mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral, causing the porters to nearly drop her coffin.

The papers on Sunday were full of criticism of the police and what was portrayed as a public relations debacle.

“Friday’s images are the opposite of common sense and patience,” commentator Oded Shalom wrote in the daily Yedioth Ahronot. “It documented a shocking display of unbridled brutality and violence.”

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

“This was one of the most extreme visual manifestations of the occupation and the humiliation experienced by the Palestinian people,” he wrote.

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