Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid has pushed back against suggestions of prosecuting a soldier who likely shot dead Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering an Israeli army operation in the occupied West Bank in May.
The veteran Al Jazeera reporter was wearing a bulletproof vest marked “Press” and a helmet when she was shot in the head in the Jenin refugee camp. Her killing caused global outrage and calls for an independent investigation.
The Israeli army conceded on Monday for the first time that one of its soldiers had likely shot Abu Akleh, after having mistaken her for a fighter. It had initially blamed Palestinian gunmen for her killing.
“There is a high possibility that Ms Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by [Israeli military] gunfire that was fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen,” said the army’s final report into her May 11 death.
The acknowledgement came after months in which the army had insisted it was impossible to determine the source of the deadly shot that killed the celebrated Al Jazeera journalist.
“I will not allow an [Israeli military] soldier that was protecting himself from terrorist fire to be prosecuted just to receive applause from abroad,” Lapid told a military ceremony.
“No one will dictate our rules of engagement to us,” he said. “Our soldiers have the full backing of the government of Israel and the people of Israel.”
US Department of State spokesman Vedant Patel had told a news briefing on Tuesday: “We’re going to continue to press our Israeli partners to closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagement and consider additional steps to mitigate the risk of civilian harm”.
A United Nations investigation concluded in June that there was “no evidence of activity by armed Palestinians close by” when Abu Akleh was shot.
Israel’s military advocate said on Monday that the circumstances of the incident “do not raise the suspicion of a crime having been committed which would justify the opening of a criminal investigation”.
The Palestinians have accused Israel of deliberately targeting Abu Akleh. Israel has denied this.
“Israel has expressed sorrow over her death. It was a tragedy that transpired in an incident in which there was heavy enemy fire. The [Israeli military] never intentionally shoots at innocent people,” Lapid said.
The Abu Akleh family said that Israel had “refused to take responsibility for the murder” of the journalist.
Al Jazeera has denounced the findings of the Israeli investigation and demanded a probe by an “independent international body”.
US Department of State spokesman Ned Price on Monday underscored “the importance of accountability in this case … to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.”
‘Israel alone bears the responsibility’
Israel has stepped up its incursions into the occupied West Bank since a wave of deadly Palestinian street attacks in Israeli cities. In the latest such raid, on Wednesday, Israeli troops killed a 20-year-old Palestinian man.
As part of near-nightly sweeps, the army carried out arrests and searches in several locations including the village of Tubas, where it said an improvised explosive device was thrown and shots were fired at soldiers, who returned fire.
Islamic Jihad claimed the man killed, Younis Tayeh, as a member and said he had died during confrontations. Tayeh’s family denied he had taken part and said he was crossing the street when shot.
US-brokered peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem collapsed in 2014.
The diplomatic stagnation has contributed to the erosion of the credibility of the US-backed Palestinian Authority (PA), which has limited self-rule and security control in the West Bank.
Gantz said the PA should do more to rein in “militants”. “The spread of weapons and lack of governance are harming both the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority itself,” Gantz said.
The Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Wasel Abu Youssef described Gantz’s remarks as “desperate”.
“Israel alone bears the responsibility for the daily killings of our people,” he said.