What do we know. What don’t we know.

Death of a journalist in Jenin: Untruths and no consequences


Over the past week the media and various communities have been in an uproar over the unfortunate death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran Al Jazeera reporter, and clashes at her funeral a couple of days later. What we know is that she was killed covering an Israeli operation in Jenin targeting terrorist activity emanating from that city (which has long been a hotbed of terror activity).

What we do not know is who killed her or the specific circumstances surrounding her death. It is possible she was killed by Israeli fire. It is also possible she was killed by Palestinian fire. But that uncertainty has not stopped the people with preconceived notions (primarily from the Palestinian side but also from the Israeli side) from reporting and spreading conclusions. Unfortunately, not only the haters but the media have been complicit, if not always brazenly.

The PA, Al Jazeera, and many others almost immediately stated that Abu Akleh had been purposely targeted by Israeli forces, that she had been shot by a “sniper,” and that she was “executed” or “assassinated.” The mayor of Dearborn Michigan stated that “what happened in Palestine was certainly an assassination.” Celebrities of the Susan Sarandon/Mark Ruffalo ilk, and some of our US Congressional representatives (including the usual suspects when it comes to attacking Israel — Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar) labeled this an “execution” and repeated the evidence-bereft speculation — couched as a conclusion — that she was “executed.

 (Apparently, they have suddenly become forensic pathologists, more qualified than, say, Palestinian Forensic Medicine Institute Director Dr. Rayyan al Ali, who stated that “It cannot be determined whether [Abu Akleh] was killed by Israeli fire or by a Palestinian bullet.”)

The only supposed “proofs” are the following:

First, the fact that she was hit below her helmet, which to some people suggests she must have been specifically targeted by someone aiming for that spot, notwithstanding that she was wearing a vest identifying her as a member of the press. Of course, when hundreds of rounds are being fired in an area, there is also a possibility that this was just an errant round that missed a specific target and hit her in a part of her body not protected by body armor.

The thing about bullets is that once they are fired there is no way to control what they hit (hence, one of the golden rules of using a firearm, “know your target and what’s behind it”).

Second, there is the claim that she must have been targeted because she was supposedly 150 to 200 yards away from where gunfire was being exchanged between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants. But bullets travel much farther than that distance, and the ones that are possible suspects here (5.56 mm or 7.62x39), can travel with lethal force out to 1000 yards and about 500 yards, respectively. Well within the killing range involved here.  Third, Abu Akleh’s Al Jazeera colleagues contend that she was shot by Israeli troops.  But reports indicate that the IDF troops were approximately 200 yards away from Abu Akleh and her crew.  That’s at least two football fields away from the Al Jazeera crew.  It would be difficult under normal circumstances to identify particular individuals doing the shooting from that distance, let alone under the stress of ducking live fire.

• • •

I don’t know who killed her. But there are a limited number of scenarios:

•she was killed in error by Israeli forces;

•she was killed deliberately by Israeli forces; 

•she was killed by errant rounds fired by Palestinian gunmen;

•she was killed deliberately by a Palestinian gunman. Lets consider those.

It is possible that an Israeli soldier fired at what he thought was an enemy target, mistaking her for a militant. If the shooter did not have a telescopic sight, 200 yards could be too far to see the “Press” indication on her vest. It is also possible that IDF forces were receiving fire from north of their position, or thought they were.  But in any event reports I have seen indicate that Israeli fire was directed south, towards gunmen firing at them, whereas Abu Akleh was north of Israeli positions. So it would seem unlikely that she was hit by errant IDF fire.

As for a purposeful targeting, while it is possible, while IDF soldiers sometimes use excessive or inappropriate force, they are certainly not trained to purposely shoot at members of the press; to the contrary, they know that the ramifications for doing so will be severe. Nor does it make any sense from a tactical standpoint for someone to have ordered such a shot to be fired. Israeli commanders are not generally stupid when it comes to use of force, and it would not take much of a mental stretch to know what would follow from the deliberate targeting of a journalist. So while it’s possible, it seems unlikely that an IDF soldier targeted her knowing she was a member of the press. There is no motive for doing so and a lot of reasons not to. But we must admit that it is possible that she was “deliberately” targeted by an IDF soldier who misidentified her at that range. 

As for those arguing that she was targeted to “silence” her criticism of Israel, there is simply nothing to suggest that any of the soldiers on the ground knew or would have known who she was when she was there.

I also doubt and have seen nothing to indicate that she was targeted deliberately, i.e., knowingly, by a Palestinian gunman. However, we have seen videos of Palestinian gunmen, running away from an alley immediately adjacent to the street where IDF troops were gathered, claiming they had just shot a soldier who was laying on the ground. Their firing position would have been to the south of Israeli troops, meaning their fire would have been directed northward of their position — toward Israeli troops but also in the direction of Abu Akleh, though she was further down the road.

So there is a reasonable possibility that she was either hit by an errant Palestinian shot or was “targeted” by a Palestinian gunman who thought she was a soldier (again, at 200+ yards, without enhanced sights, someone with a helmet and ballistic vest could have been confused with a soldier).

The Israelis initially, ham-handedly claimed that video evidence of a Palestinian gunman firing wildly around a corner suggested they had hit her, only to have that particular video demonstrated to have been shot in a place from which she could not have been hit. That doesn’t mean that another Palestinian, directing his fire toward IDF targets, did not hit her, just that this particular video probably does not show her killer.

The situation on the ground was fluid, with both soldiers and militants moving through alleys and streets to attack and defend.

• • •

Let’s also consider the parties’ investigative positions. The Israelis requested a joint investigation and requested that the PA allow Israel to inspect the ballistic evidence (in particular, the bullet removed from her body). The PA has refused, even if it or impartial third parties were present during the Israeli investigation, stating that it will take the case to the ICC instead (in other words, seeking to convict a defendant without allowing that defendant to review/challenge the evidence offered against it). That is a huge red flag. If the evidence truly suggested that Israeli fire was to blame, it seems likely the PA would be touting that fact all over the place to buttress its claims. But it did not allow any Israelis to participate in the autopsy and it has not shared the forensics as far as I know (that would indicate the angle of impact and could also shed light on the caliber and type of bullet used).

Similarly, the bullet itself could indicate who fired the fatal round. If it was a 7.62 mm round, that would confirm that Palestinian fire killed her, as IDF soldiers do not use that round. If, as some reports have indicated, it is a 5.56 mm round, which the IDF does use but is also used by some PA forces and many Palestinian terrorists, and was being used by Palestinians in this exchange too, then ballistic testing of the round against the weapons used by the IDF soldiers involved in this operation also could determine who fired (or did not fire) the fatal shot.

As well,  if the type of bullet is not of the type used by the IDF (for example, if it is a hollow point bullet or of a ballistic type not issued in the IDF), that would exclude IDF culpability. That the PA refuses to turn over this critical evidence or allow Israel to analyze it is certainly not conclusive of anything, but it casts suspicion on why the PA refuses to do so.  I hope that the proper investigation will be allowed to get to the bottom of this incident, regardless of where the truth points. If it points toward an Israeli soldier as the culprit, depending on the circumstances it would lead to judicial action or altered training (and a lot of eating crow, on my own and the Israeli government’s part). If it points away from Israeli culpability, then I would hope (likely baselessly) that those already convicting Israel would formally retract and apologize.

• • •

At Abu Akleh’s funeral, the Israeli police demonstrated that Israel is simply unable to get out of its own way sometimes.

Media around the world have reported on and showed (edited) clips of Israeli police wading into the crowd at the funeral, batons in full swing. But what most of those media outlets are not showing is crucial footage seconds before that melee, showing Israeli police standing to the side, being repeatedly pelted with objects from the crowd. As aerial footage shows, when the final one was tossed, the police moved in toward the perpetrator, who sought refuge under the casket being carried by pallbearers (who, reports indicate, took the casket without permission of the Abu Akleh family and contrary to prior arrangements made between Israeli police and the family — in fact, as the Washington Post reported, at the funeral, “Abu Akleh’s brother, sitting on someone’s shoulders, beseeched the crowd to let the hearse through. ‘For God’s sake, let us put her in the car and finish the day.” But the “mourners” again attacked the hearse with sticks and insisted on taking the coffin).

One can see from the disturbing video that Israeli police are clearly trying to get to someone under the casket and swinging their batons at him. But several other people were hit and the image of the casket almost falling to the ground is going to haunt people for a long time. Ultimately, Israeli police escorted the hearse to the cemetery and she was buried without further incident. As well, instead of just wisely gritting their teeth and allowing things to proceed, Israeli police were targeting Palestinian flags and removing them, although the display of Palestinian flags is not illegal. Israel excels at nearly everything but PR (and genocide, of which it is often erroneously accused).

• • •

When this story first broke, I mentioned to a friend that I hoped people would allow for the investigation to go forward and hold their judgments until the investigation was completed (naively, I guess)

I said that I did not want to see this turn into another Muhammad al Durrah incident (the notorious incident where a young Palestinian boy was killed during an exchange of fire between IDF forces and Palestinian gunman and forces, caught on video and broadcast around the world). Then, as now, there were rampant claims that he was deliberately targeted and murdered by Israeli forces (although why Israel would want to kill him could never be explained). He became a symbol and that narrative of his killing remains prevalent.

The only problem is that the forensic analysis shows pretty conclusively that he could not have been — and was not — hit by Israeli fire. And I fear and feel that the same will be true here; that, if Israel is allowed to examine the forensic evidence and further facts come out, it will be apparent that Shireen Abu Akleh was not killed by Israeli fire (or that the identity of the person responsible cannot be determined). 

That’s speculative on my part, and I have to admit that it is driven in part by my own biases; I want to believe that Israeli soldiers did not target a journalist (although, sadly, even our cherished soldiers have not been immune from unlawful use of force). But it is also driven by what evidence I have seen so far and presumptions I can reasonably reach based on the PA’s strange refusal to allow Israel to see/analyze the evidence it claims to have.

This is not a controversy that will soon fade.

Howard Bressler is a resident of West Hempstead. An attorney, he is author of “Wrong Conclusion, No Resolution: United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334’s Erroneous Conclusions on the Legality of Israeli Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem,” “Tlaib’s Fake History” (The Jewish Star, May 14, 2019), and “The Layman’s Guide to Surviving Cancer: From Diagnosis Through Treatment and Beyond” (Langdon Street, 2014).