JERUSALEM (AP) — Veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank town of Jenin early Wednesday. The broadcaster and a reporter who was wounded in the incident blamed Israeli forces.
The Israel army initially raised the possibility that Abu Akleh might have killed by stray Palestinian fire, saying militants were also present in the area, However, army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi later stepped back from that assertion, saying that “at this stage, we cannot determine by whose fire she was harmed and we regret her death.”
Abu Akleh, 51, was a respected and familiar face in the Middle East, known for her coverage of the harsh realities of Israel’s military occupation for the past three decades. Her death reverberated across the region and set alight social media. She reported for Al Jazeera’s Arabic language channel and was also a U.S. citizen. The State Department called her death “an affront to media freedom.”
She was fatally shot in the head early Wednesday on the outskirts of the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. Her producer, Palestinian journalist Ali Samoudi, was hospitalized in stable condition after being shot in the back.
Al Jazeera accused Israel of “deliberately targeting and killing our colleague.” Palestinian journalists who were with Abu Akleh at the time said they made their presence known to Israeli soldiers, and that they did not see militants in the area.
The Israeli military said its forces came under attack with heavy gunfire and explosives while operating in Jenin, and that they fired back. The military said it was investigating “and looking into the possibility that the journalists were hit by the Palestinian gunmen.”
Kochavi, the army chief, said a special team had been formed to investigate.
Israel released a video of Palestinian gunmen firing in an alley of the Jenin camp, later saying the video was meant to bolster its contention that Palestinians were firing in the area.
However, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released its own video casting doubt on those claims.
The B’Tselem video was taken by one of its researchers who walked between the location of the militants in the video and where Abu Akleh was shot. It also provided coordinates for the two locations. They appeared to be about 300 meters (330 yards) apart and separated by walls and buildings.
Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the group, said its evidence shows “there is no way” that the gunfire shown in the video killed Abu Akleh. “There is no clear shot,” she said.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett noted that in the video, a militant is heard shouting that a soldier has been wounded. Because no Israelis were hurt, he said that suggested the gunmen had shot a journalist instead.
Abu Akleh was born in Jerusalem and began working for Al Jazeera in 1997. She regularly reported from across the Palestinian territories, making her a well-known face on television screens across the Arab world.
Samoudi, who was working as her producer, told The Associated Press they were among a group of seven reporters who went to cover the raid early Wednesday. He said they were all wearing protective gear that clearly marked them as reporters, and they passed by Israeli troops so the soldiers would know that they were there.
He said a first shot missed them, then a second struck him, and a third killed Abu Akleh. He said there were no militants or other civilians in the area — only the reporters and the army. He said the military’s suggestion that they were shot by militants was a “complete lie.”
The Qatar-based network, which has long had strained relations with Israel, interrupted its broadcast to announce her death. In a statement flashed on its channel, it called on the international community to “condemn and hold the Israeli occupation forces accountable for deliberately targeting and killing our colleague.”
“We pledge to prosecute the perpetrators legally, no matter how hard they try to cover up their crime, and bring them to justice,” Al Jazeera said.
It aired a separate video showing Abu Akleh lying motionless on the side of a road next to a wall as another journalist crouches nearby and a man screams for an ambulance. Gunfire rings out in the background. Both reporters were wearing blue flak jackets clearly marked with the word “PRESS.”
The video did not show the source of the gunfire.
Shaza Hanaysheh, another Palestinian journalist among the reporters, also said there were no clashes or shooting in the immediate area. She said that when the shots rang out she and Abu Akleh ran toward a tree to take shelter.
“I reached the tree before Shireen. She fell on the ground,” Hanaysheh told Al Jazeera. “Every time I extended my hand toward Shireen, the soldiers fired at us.”
Israel said it had proposed a joint investigation and autopsy with the Palestinian Authority, which refused the offer.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security matters, condemned what it said was a “shocking crime” committed by Israeli forces.
Israel has carried out near-daily raids in the occupied West Bank in recent weeks amid a series of deadly attacks inside Israel, many of them carried out by Palestinians from Jenin. The town, and particularly its refugee camp, has long been known as a militant bastion.
Hundreds of Palestinians, including several masked gunmen, marched through Jenin in a funeral procession, carrying Abu Akleh’s body draped with a Palestinian flag and a blue press vest. Her body was taken to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, before burial in Jerusalem.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States was heartbroken and strongly condemned Abu Akleh’s killing.
“The investigation must be immediate and thorough and those responsible must be held accountable. Her death is an affront to media freedom everywhere,” he said.
Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, condemned the killing “in the strongest terms.”
The Arab League condemned the shooting and blamed Israel, and Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, called the shooting “a heinous crime.”
In a separate incident on Wednesday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said an 18-year-old, identified as Thair al-Yazouri, was shot and killed by Israeli forces near Ramallah. The military said Palestinians were hurling rocks at an army post near a West Bank settlement and that soldiers had responded with rubber bullets.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Palestinians want the territory to form the main part of their future state. Nearly 3 million Palestinians live in the territory under Israeli military rule. Israel has built more than 130 settlements across the West Bank that are home to nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers, who have full Israeli citizenship.
Israelis have long been critical of Al Jazeera’s coverage, but authorities generally allow its journalists to operate freely. Another Al Jazeera reporter was briefly detained last year during a protest in Jerusalem and treated for a broken hand, which her employer blamed on rough treatment by police.
Relations between Israeli forces and the media, especially Palestinian journalists, are strained. A number of Palestinian reporters have been wounded by rubber-coated bullets or tear gas while covering demonstrations in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Two Palestinian journalists were shot and killed by Israeli forces while filming violent protests along the Gaza frontier in 2018.
In November of that year, AP cameraman Rashed Rashid was covering a protest near the Gaza frontier when he was shot in the left ankle, apparently by Israeli fire. He was wearing protective gear that clearly identified him as a journalist, and was standing with other journalists some 600 meters (660 yards) from the border when he was hit. The military has never acknowledged the shooting.
During last year’s war between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the building in Gaza City housing the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera. Residents were warned to evacuate and no one was hurt in the strike. Israel said Hamas was using the building as a command center but has provided no evidence.
Akram reported from Hamilton, Canada. Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Ilan Ben Zion and Areej Hazboun in Jerusalem contributed.