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Israel's probe of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh's killing raises questions


Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh died last month. She was shot while covering an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank. And there's an ongoing struggle over the facts around her death. The U.S. has called for a transparent investigation. The U.N. Human Rights Office Friday followed several media organizations in saying it's likely Israeli forces shot her. Israel says it's still investigating. NPR's Daniel Estrin looks at Israel's track record for handling cases of Palestinian civilian casualties and whether this time there may be more answers than usual.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel says it still does not know who killed Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on the morning of tense gun battles, whether it was a Palestinian gunmen or an Israeli soldier. The army has a suspected soldier's weapon and demands Palestinians hand over the bullet for a joint investigation.

ANTON ABU AKLEH: This is absolutely unacceptable for us.

ESTRIN: The victim's brother, Anton Abu Akleh, is pushing for answers but wants the U.S. to do the investigating.

ABU AKLEH: How can you ask another suspect to do their own investigation?

ESTRIN: After more than a month, the case is in limbo because Israel says without the bullet, it's hard to establish the facts.

AVNER GVARYAHU: This ambiguity is actually helpful for the military and for the Israeli government to not take more responsibility.

ESTRIN: Avner Gvaryahu, former sergeant of an Israeli sniper team used to serve in the same area where Abu Akleh was killed. He directs Breaking the Silence, a veterans group that opposes Israel's occupation of the West Bank. The group interviews young Israelis about what they did and what they saw during their army service.

GVARYAHU: There is still a lot that isn't transparent in terms of what the army itself knows.

ESTRIN: Abu Akleh was wearing a vest identifying her as press. The Israeli army says its investigation clearly concludes that she was not intentionally shot by an Israeli soldier. The army has questioned the suspected soldier who fired shots from an army vehicle. But the army declined to answer NPR's questions about what the suspected soldier told investigators, what orders soldiers were given, and what footage the army has of the incident.

GVARYAHU: What were his orders? What did the other soldiers here? I can't even imagine a situation when we have a soldier alone in a vehicle, right? There's a driver. There's other soldiers. There's commanders with them. Anyone who is seeking the truth should demand to make that information public.

ESTRIN: Israeli human rights group Yesh Din studied military data from 2019 and 2020 and found Israel prosecuted only 2% of cases where Palestinians reported harm by soldiers. It found soldiers killed more than 150 Palestinians during that time, but only 16 cases were investigated.

DAN OWEN: There's a huge number of killings that go unpunished.

ESTRIN: Dan Owen led the study.

OWEN: The vast majority of killings do not reach indictment or even investigation.

ESTRIN: Israel does not launch immediate criminal investigations against soldiers when Palestinians are killed in what the army classifies as active combat. Military advocate general Yifat Tomer Yerushalmi defended that policy in a speech.



ESTRIN: She said Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in an active combat zone. Soldiers were there pursuing militants after a wave of attacks in Israel. And she says there can be no immediate suspicion of criminal activity by soldiers without further evidence.

There is a famous case where Israel prosecuted a soldier and it sent mixed messages. In 2016, a soldier was caught on tape executing a Palestinian assailant after the Palestinian had been wounded and no longer posed a threat. The soldier was sentenced to only 18 months in prison and served just nine.

LIRON LIBMAN: Generally, the public opinion, which was aroused by high-ranking politicians, was very negative about the idea of him being investigated and indicted.

ESTRIN: Former chief Israeli military prosecutor Liron Libman thinks the sentence was too lenient. Looking back at the soldiers he prosecuted a decade and a half ago, he thinks the same.

LIBMAN: I would prefer that it would be more serious. But I think that the important thing is the procedure itself, for soldiers to understand that this is not an acceptable behavior.

ESTRIN: Israel is similar to other militaries, which tend to protect their own when they ask troops to risk their lives for their country, says former Pentagon official Marc Garlasco, who has investigated war crimes around the world.

MARC GARLASCO: Militaries in particular have a very poor record of investigating themselves. It doesn't matter if we're talking about Israel or the United States, Myanmar. When organizations investigate themselves, they tend to either exonerate their personnel, or they'll go after the lowest-hanging fruit, and we very rarely see any kind of justice.

ESTRIN: But he thinks that's changing. The U.S. Defense Department is working to improve the way it handles civilian casualties after a drone strike last year killed innocent Afghans. The State Department says it seeks accountability for Shireen Abu Akleh's killing in the West Bank. Gvaryahu, the Israeli army veteran, thinks Israel will have to provide answers.

GVARYAHU: When you have such a high-profile case, when, you know, Shireen being a journalist and an American citizen, the maximum the army went in the past will not cut it this time.

ESTRIN: The State Department has dismissed the idea of a U.S. investigation, which Shireen Abu Akleh's family has asked for. Spokesman Ned Price said Israel has the wherewithal to conduct an investigation that culminates in accountability. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.