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Independent investigation suggests Israeli gunfire led to death of Al Jazeera journalist

JERUSALEM (AP) — As Israel and the Palestinians tussle over the investigation into the murder of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, several independent groups have launched their own investigations. An open-source research team said her initial findings gave support to Palestinian witnesses who said she was killed by Israeli gunfire.

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

Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American and 25-year veteran of the satellite channel, was killed last Wednesday while covering an Israeli military raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. She was known in the Arab world, known for documenting the hardships of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, now in her sixth decade.

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

Family and friends carry the coffin of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in an Israeli raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank, as clashes erupted with Israeli security forces, during his funeral in Jerusalem, May 13, 2022. REUTERS / Amar Awad

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

Israel has called for a joint investigation with the Palestinians, saying the bullet must be analyzed by ballistics experts to reach definitive conclusions. Palestinian officials refused, saying they did not trust Israel, and invited other countries to join the investigation. Rights groups say Israel has a poor record of investigating wrongdoing by its security forces.

While the two sides are at odds over the investigation of Abu Akleh, several research and human rights groups have launched their own investigations.

Over the weekend, Bellingcat, an international consortium of researchers based in the Netherlands, published an analysis of video and audio evidence gathered from social media. The material came from Palestinian and Israeli military sources, and the analysis looked at factors including timestamps, video locations, shadows, and forensic audio analysis of the shots.

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

“Based on what we were able to examine, 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 for the IDF. analysis.

Bellingcat is one of a growing number of companies using “open source” information, such as social media videos, security camera recordings and satellite imagery, to reconstruct events.

READ MORE: Israel to investigate police conduct after pallbearers beaten at journalist’s funeral

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

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

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

The Israeli claim was based on a social media video in which a Palestinian gunman fires in an alley in Jenin, then other activists come running to claim they shot a soldier. The army said that since no soldiers were injured that day, the gunmen may have been referring to Abu Akleh, who was wearing a protective helmet and body armor.

A B’Tselem researcher traveled to the area and took video showing that the Palestinian gunmen were about 300 meters (yards) from where Abu Akleh was shot, separated by a series of walls and alleys.

Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for the group, said B’Tselem had begun collecting witness statements and may attempt to piece together the shooting with videos from the scene. But she said at this point she was unable to come to a conclusion about who was behind the shooting.

Sadot said any bullet should be matched to the barrel of the gun. The Palestinians refused to release the bullet, and it is unclear whether the army confiscated the weapons used that day.

“The bullet alone can’t say much” because it could have been fired from either side, she said. “What can be done is to match a bullet to the barrel,” she said.

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

Jonathan Conricus, a former Israeli army spokesman and military affairs expert, said reconstructing a shooting in densely populated urban terrain is “very complex” and said forensic evidence, such as the ball, are crucial to reaching definitive conclusions. He accused the Palestinian Authority of refusing to cooperate for propaganda purposes.

“Without the bullet, any investigation will only be able to reach partial and questionable conclusions,” Conricus said. “One would assume that the PA’s strategy is exactly that: to deprive Israel of the ability to clear its name, while leveraging global sympathy for the Palestinian cause.”

Meanwhile, Israeli police over the weekend launched an investigation into the conduct of officers who attacked mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral, nearly knocking down the pallbearers of his coffin.

The Sunday papers were filled with criticism of the police and what was described as a public relations debacle.

“Friday’s images are the exact opposite of good judgment and patience,” commentator Oded Shalom wrote in the daily Yediot Ahronot. “He 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.

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


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