Calls have grown for an independent and impartial investigation into the killing of veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead as she covered an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank, putting the spotlight on Israeli attacks on Palestinian journalists.
The Qatar-based TV channel said in a statement on Wednesday that Abu Akleh, 51, was “assassinated in cold blood” by “the Israeli occupation forces”.
Another Al Jazeera journalist, producer Ali al-Samudi, was wounded in the incident in which both wore helmets and vests marked “Press”. He later said no Palestinian fighters were nearby, stressing that otherwise “we would not have gone into the area”.
Majid Awais, a witness, told AFP that Abu Akleh “turned in panic” when she saw her colleague al-Samudi was shot, and that she was struck by the fatal bullet moments later.
Her death came nearly a year after an Israeli air strike destroyed a Gaza building that housed the offices of Al Jazeera and news agency AP.
The Palestinian Authority said it held Israel “responsible” for the killing of Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, who was hit by a bullet in the head during an Israeli operation in the Jenin refugee camp.
The Hamas movement, which governs the Gaza Strip, condemned the killing “in the strongest terms,” calling it an “assassination”.
The European Union urged an “independent” investigation into her death, as the office of the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said it was “appalled”, and also called for “an independent, transparent investigation”.
Meanwhile, the United States envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called for the killing to be “transparently investigated”.
‘Thorough and independent’
Commenting on the developments, former Al Jazeera English journalist Ayman Mohideen, who worked closely with Abu Akleh while reporting from Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, said the US government should push for an independent investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh, who was also a US citizen.
“The most important thing is that if they [US authorities] want to see an investigation, it has to be thorough and independent,” said Mohideen.
Speaking from the UN headquarters in New York, Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey said the UN Secretary-General, the High Commissioner of Human Rights and the Special UN Envoy for the Middle East were all also calling for an independent investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing.
On the other hand, the US State Department said that Israel was capable of conducting a thorough investigation into the death of Abu Akleh.
“The Israelis have the wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation,” department spokesman Ned Price told a news briefing.
Earlier on Wednesday, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said it was “likely” that “armed Palestinians – who were indiscriminately firing at the time – were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist”.
He later said no Palestinian fighters were nearby, stressing that otherwise “we would not have gone into the area”.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz later said that “the preliminary investigation conducted by the (army) in the last several hours indicate that no gunfire was directed at the journalist – however, the investigation is ongoing”.
Army chief Aviv Kohavi said, that “at this stage, it is not possible to determine the source of the gunfire which hit her”.
Asked about Israel’s openness to an international investigation, army spokesman Amnon Shefler said the military’s internal investigative systems were “robust” and that it would conduct its own probe.
Shefler told reporters that Israel “would never deliberately target non-combatants,” calling Abu Akleh’s death “a tragedy that should not have occurred”.
Israel has however publicly offered to participate in a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority.
But Palestine’s UN ambassador Riyad Mansour has said his country will “not accept” an investigation by the “Israeli occupying authority” and has held the Israeli army responsible for the “assassination” of Abu Akleh.
Addressing reporters at the UN headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Mansour said: “The story of the Israeli side does not hold water, it is fictitious and it is not in line with reality and we do not accept to have an investigation on this issue with those who are the criminals in conducting this event itself.”
Jenin as a flashpoint
The Israeli army has stepped up operations in Jenin, an historic flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in recent weeks.
Several suspects blamed for deadly attacks on Israelis were from the area.
Tensions have risen in recent months as Israel has grappled with a wave of attacks, which has killed at least 18 people since March 22, including an Arab-Israeli police officer and two Ukrainians.
More than 20 Palestinians have been killed since the end of March, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Also on Wednesday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Israeli soldiers had shot and killed an 18-year-old Palestinian in the West Bank near Ramallah. The ministry did not provide any further details, and Israeli authorities did not comment.