A panel of United Nations human rights experts have condemned the killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh and said it may constitute a war crime.
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“Authorities have an obligation not to harm journalists and to protect them from harm under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” the experts said according to the statement. “The killing of Abu Akleh, who was clearly performing her duties as a journalist, may constitute a war crime.”
Abu Akleh, a veteran reporter with Al Jazeera, was killed on Wednesday while covering an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin. She was wearing a helmet and a vest that clearly identified her as a journalist.
“We demand a prompt, independent, impartial, effective, thorough and transparent investigation into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh,” according to the statement.
“The killing of Abu Akleh is another serious attack on media freedom and freedom of expression, amid the escalation of violence in the occupied West Bank.”
Thousands of people jammed the streets in her hometown of Jerusalem Friday for her funeral and burial. Israeli police kicked and beat mourners with batons as they carried her body from the hospital in occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, nearly causing the pallbearers to drop the coffin.
Israeli forces also attacked the hearse as it carried her body, to snatch Palestinian flags from it.
“Al Jazeera Media Network denounces this violence in the strongest terms, and holds the Israeli government fully responsible for the safety and security of all the mourners and the family of our colleague Shireen,” the broadcaster said in a statement Friday.
Abu Akleh was buried next to her parents at the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery.
The UN experts said Abu Akleh’s killing came as violence has been on the increase in the occupied West Bank and Gaza in recent years. Last year, according to the statement, marked the highest number of Palestinian deaths resulting from confrontations with Israelis since 2014. It also came amid a high rate of attacks against Palestinian journalists.
At least Palestinian journalists have been killed since 2000, and hundreds more have been injured.
“The role of journalists, especially in a context of heightened tension and marked by continuous abuses, like the occupied Palestinian territory, is critical,” the experts said.
“Lack of accountability gives carte blanche to continue the litany of extrajudicial executions. The safety of journalists is essential in guaranteeing the freedom of expression and media freedom.”
The Israeli military said its initial investigation into Abu Akleh’s death showed that a heavy firefight was under way in Jenin approximately 200 metres (about 220 yards) from where she was killed, but that it was unable to determine whether she was shot by Israeli forces or Palestinian fighters.
In a statement issued Friday, the military said Palestinian gunmen recklessly fired hundreds of rounds at an Israeli military vehicle, some in the direction of where Abu Akleh was standing. It said Israeli forces returned fire, and that without doing ballistic analysis, it cannot determine who was responsible for her death.
Reporters who were with Abu Akleh, including one who was shot and wounded, said there were no clashes or fighters in the immediate area when she was killed.
Al Jazeera has accused Israel of “blatant murder” and have called for an independent investigation into her death.
Rights groups have said that Israel rarely follows through on investigations into the killing of Palestinians by its security forces and hands down lenient punishments on the rare occasions when it does.
Abu Akleh, 51, had joined Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language service in 1997 and rose to prominence covering the second Intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s.