Washington has informed the Israeli authorities that it decided to open its own investigation into the killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, several Israeli and US media outlets reported, citing unidentified sources.
According to a report by Axios on Monday, the US Justice Department informed its counterpart in Israel that the FBI is opening a probe into the incident.
Abu Akleh was fatally shot by Israeli forces while covering a raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin in May. The Al Jazeera correspondent, who was 51, was a US citizen and one of the best-known reporters on the conflict in the Arab World.
The scope of a US investigation, as well as what consequences could ensue, remain unclear. A US Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by Al Jazeera on Monday.
But Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel would not cooperate with an external investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing. “The decision taken by the US Justice Department to conduct an investigation into the tragic passing of Shireen Abu Akleh, is a mistake,” Gantz wrote on Twitter.
“I have delivered a message to US representatives that we stand by the [Israeli army’s] soldiers, that we will not cooperate with an external investigation, and will not enable intervention to internal investigations,” he also tweeted.
The reports on Monday come less than two weeks after Israeli voters favoured a right-wing coalition that will bring former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power.
Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer and former Justice Department official, said a decision to launch an FBI investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing means that the US authorities have “credible evidence” related to what occurred.
“There’s credible evidence in the FBI’s view, based upon things that have been in the public domain — irrespective of Israel’s recalcitrance — to believe that a crime was committed, namely assassination,” Fein told our reporters.
“And secondly, there’s got to be some credible evidence — in my view — that an American citizen, could be a dual citizen, was the one who pulled the trigger.”
Fein said while Israel may be quick to refuse to cooperate with the probe, the US has many tools, including military aid and regional geopolitics, to pressure its Middle East ally. “Those kinds of levers can change the minds of the Israelis,” he said.
Biden administration’s position
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, said the details remained unclear on Monday about what a US investigation would entail, as well as its potential effects on the US-Israeli relationship.
“We do not know what the nature of the engagement, if any, has been between the US authorities and the [Israelis],” Hanna said. “This would be the key issue … the degree to which the US has maintained dialogue with Israel into the death of Shireen Abu Akleh.
“The situation [is] very murky at the moment given the lack of information that we are getting from the Department of Justice.”
A US probe into the killing would mark an about-face from the initial stance of President Joe Biden’s administration.
Despite numerous calls by US legislators for a Washington-led investigation, the US State Department previously ruled out opening an inquiry into the incident. Instead, US officials have stressed that Israel can investigate its own troops.
Abu Akleh’s killing sparked international outrage and calls for justice by press freedom advocates.
Dozens of US legislators, including some staunch Israel supporters, signed on to letters urging Biden and his top aides to seek accountability in the case. One of the letters called for an FBI probe.
In September, the Israeli government said it would not conduct a criminal investigation into the incident after releasing a public assessment stating that there is a “high possibility” that one of its soldiers shot Abu Akleh but that it was accidental.
Video footage, several witnesses and multiple investigations by independent media outlets showed that there were no armed Palestinians in the area where Abu Akleh and other journalists were standing before Israeli soldiers started firing at them.
After calling for “accountability” for months and saying the journalist’s killers should be prosecuted, the Biden administration changed its tone after the Israeli statement in September, and the public US push for accountability became muted.
Instead, the State Department urged Israel to review its rules of engagement to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future — a demand later publicly rejected by Israeli leaders.
Meanwhile, rights advocates welcomed the reports of a US probe.
“This is an important and overdue step toward accountability for relentless Israeli abuses,” Democracy for the Arab World Now, a Washington, DC-based human rights group, said on Twitter.
Robert Mahoney at the Committee to Protect Journalists said on Monday that while “Israel has powerful allies and political influence in the United States … Washington equally has influence over a state that it props up with nearly $4 billion a year in aid”.
“It can do more than give Israel a slap on the wrist from press-briefing podiums. It can pressure Israel to accept an FBI or other independent investigation,” Mahoney wrote in an op-ed in The Hill.
“The Abu Akleh family says Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered. Israel denies it. Without a thorough, independent investigation by a credible agency like the FBI, we will never know and reporters, even those wearing ‘PRESS’ vests, will continue to be potential targets.”
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib also welcomed the reports and urged the FBI and Justice Department to “take every step possible to ensure that this investigation is conducted in a transparent, credible, and unbiased manner”.
US Senator Chris Van Hollen, who has been leading calls for a Washington-led probe into the killing, described the possible investigation as an “overdue but necessary and important step in the pursuit of justice and accountability” in the case.