JERUSALEM – A number of independent groups have launched their own investigations into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shirin Abu Akleh following a rift between Israel and the Palestinians. An open source research team says its preliminary results support Palestinian witnesses who say he was killed by Israeli gunfire.
Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American and 25-year-old veteran of the Satellite Channel, was killed last Wednesday while covering an Israeli military operation in the occupied West Bank Jenin refugee camp. He was a family name throughout the Arab world, known for documenting the hardships of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, now in its sixties.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Sunday that he spoke with Abu Akleh’s family to express sympathy and respect for his work, “as well as the need for an immediate and credible investigation into his death.”
Palestinian officials and eyewitnesses, as well as journalists accompanying him, said he had been shot dead by army. The military, which initially said Palestinian gunmen could be held responsible, later retreated and now says it could also be the victim of mistaken Israeli gunfire.
Israel has called for a joint investigation with the Palestinians, saying the bullet must be analyzed by ballistic experts to reach a firm conclusion. Palestinian officials have denied that they do not trust Israel and have invited other countries to join the investigation. Human rights groups say Israeli security forces have a poor record of investigation.
With the conflict between the two sides over the Abu Akleh investigation, several research and human rights groups have launched their own investigations.
Over the weekend, Bellingcat, a Dutch-based international consortium of researchers, released an analysis of video and audio evidence collected on social media. The material comes from both Palestinian and Israeli military sources, and the analysis looks at factors such as time stamps, location of videos, shadows, and a forensic audio analysis of gunfire.
The group found that both gunmen and Israeli soldiers were in the area, with evidence supporting witnesses’ statements that Israeli gunmen had killed Abu Akleh.
Giancarlo Fiorella, the lead researcher on the analysis, said: “Based on what we have been able to review, the IDF (Israeli troops) were in the closest position and Abu Akleh had the clearest vision.”
Bellingcat is among a growing number of firms that use “open source” information, such as social media videos, security camera recordings, and satellite images, to organize events.
Fiorella acknowledged that the analysis could not be 100% accurate without evidence such as bullets, weapons used by the military and the GPS location of Israeli forces. But he said the emergence of additional evidence usually strengthens initial decisions and almost never reverses them.
“We do it when we don’t have access to those things,” he said.
Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says it is also conducting its own analysis. The group has been instrumental in the army’s retreat from initial claims that Palestinian gunmen were blamed for his death last week.
The Israeli claim was based on a social media video where a Palestinian gunman opened fire on Jenin Aliyev, and then other militants came running and claimed to have shot a soldier. The army said no soldiers were injured that day, so gunmen may have mentioned Abu Akleh, who was wearing a protective helmet and flak jacket.
A B’Tselem researcher visited the area and took a video showing that Palestinian gunmen were about 300 meters (yards) away from where Abu Akleh was shot, separated by several walls and alleys.
A spokesman for the group, Dor Sadot, said B’Telselem had begun collecting evidence from eyewitnesses and could try to reschedule the shooting with video from the scene. However, he said at the moment, he could not decide who was behind the shooting.
Sadot said any bullet must match the barrel of the gun. The Palestinians have refused to release the bullet, and it is unclear whether the army confiscated the weapons.
“The bullet can’t say much by itself because it can be fired from both sides,” he said. “All that can be done is to match a bullet to a barrel,” he said.
The Israeli military did not respond to a request for an interview to discuss the status of its investigation.
Jonathan Conricus, a former Israeli military spokesman and military expert, said the reconstruction of a gunfight in densely populated urban areas was “very complex” and said bullet-like forensic evidence was crucial to reaching a firm conclusion. He accused the Palestinian Authority of refusing to cooperate with him for propaganda purposes.
“Without the bullet, any investigation would only be able to reach a partial and dubious conclusion,” Conricus said. “One can only guess that the Palestinian Authority’s strategy is exactly the same: to deny Israel the ability to clear its name while gaining global sympathy for the Palestinian cause.”
Meanwhile, Israeli police have launched an investigation into the conduct of officers who attacked mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral over the weekend, with the Palbars almost dumping his coffin.
Sunday’s newspapers were full of criticism of the police and what was portrayed as a public relations defeat.
“The footage from Friday is the exact opposite of good judgment and patience,” commentator Oded Shalom wrote in the daily Yedioth Ahronno. “It documented a heinous display of unbridled brutality and violence.”
Nir Hassan, who covers Jerusalem for the Haaretz daily, says the problems are much deeper than the Israeli picture.
“It was an expression of the most extreme scenes of occupation and humiliation of the Palestinian people,” he wrote.
Tel Aviv, Israel’s Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg and Berlin’s Matthew Lee contributed to this report.