Israel has said it will not cooperate with an FBI investigation into the killing of the Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by the Israeli army.
Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, denounced the inquiry as “interference in Israel’s internal affairs” and said he “made it clear to the American representatives that we stand behind the IDF [Israel defence forces] soldiers, that we will not cooperate with any external investigation”.
“The decision of the US Department of Justice to investigate the unfortunate death of Shireen Abu Akleh is a grave mistake. The IDF conducted an independent and professional investigation, which was presented to the Americans who shared the details,” Gantz said.
But an outright failure to cooperate would complicate relations with Washington and reinforce claims of an Israeli cover-up of Abu Akleh’s death as she reported on a military raid on the West Bank city of Jenin in May.
The FBI investigation comes after months of pressure from the highly respected Al-Jazeera journalist’s family, who had accused the Biden administration of “skulking toward the erasure of any wrongdoing by Israeli forces”. The family was backed by dozens of members of Congress.
Abu Akleh’s family praised the US decision on Tuesday. “This is an important step,” said a statement that voiced hope for a “truly independent, credible and thorough probe”. The statement noted that the family had been asking for a US probe “since the beginning”.
“It is what the United States should do when a US citizen is killed abroad, especially when they were killed, like Shireen, by a foreign military.”
News of the inquiry was also welcomed by Senator Chris Van Hollen, who was highly critical of the failure of Israel to properly account for the killing. “This is an overdue but necessary and important step in the pursuit of justice and accountability in the shooting death of American citizen and journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh,” he tweeted.
The IDF initially denied responsibility for killing Abu Akleh and pointed the finger at Palestinian gunmen. But investigations by the United Nations and several news organisations concluded that the journalist was not near Palestinian gunfire when she was killed, and that Israeli forces were almost certainly responsible. The UN said that Israeli soldiers fired “several single, seemingly well-aimed bullets” at Abu Akleh and other journalists.
In September, the IDF finally admitted that one of its soldiers had probably shot her but said there would be no criminal prosecutions because no laws had been broken and declared the case closed. The US state department was prepared to let the matter rest there, but that did not ease political pressure from Congress.
The longest-serving member of the Senate, Patrick Leahy, challenged the value of Israel’s report on Abu Akleh’s death, noting there was “a history of investigations of shootings by IDF soldiers that rarely result in accountability”.
Leahy increased the pressure on Israel by suggesting that its failure to fully explain the Al-Jazeera reporter’s killing could jeopardise the US’s huge military aid to the Jewish state under a law he sponsored 25 years ago cutting weapons supplies to countries that abuse human rights.
Leahy told the Senate said that the Biden administration had failed to act on calls from members of Congress for the FBI to investigate Abu Akleh’s death as is “customary and appropriate after a tragedy like this involving a prominent American killed overseas under questionable circumstances”.
“Unfortunately, there has been no independent, credible investigation,” he said.
Van Hollen was also dismissive of the Israeli investigation.
“The crux of the ‘defense’ in this IDF report is that a soldier was ‘returning fire’ from militants” when Abu Aqleh was struck, Van Hollen tweeted. “But investigations … found no such firing at the time. This underscores need for independent US inquiry into this American journalist’s death.”
Nearly half of the Democratic members of the Senate signed a letter calling into question Israel’s claim that Abu Akleh was accidentally shot by a soldier. The letter suggests she may have been targeted because she was a journalist.
The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din also welcomed the US investigation.
“Only an independent international investigation can lead to the discovery of the truth,” it said.
But Yesh Din added that it was only happening because Abu Akleh was a US citizen.
“It is important to emphasize that this is an exceptional event as it involves an American citizen and a famous journalist. In most cases (72% of the complaints submitted by Palestinians), the army does not carry out a criminal investigation. A thorough and serious investigation is necessary, not only when it comes to an American citizen.’’