The bullet that killed Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on Wednesday has become a central point of contention in the competing efforts by Israelis and Palestinians to investigate who shot her.
The Palestinian Authority on Thursday declined a request to let Israeli officials examine the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, a prominent reporter for Al-Jazeera who was killed in the occupied West Bank during an Israeli raid.
The authority said it would investigate Abu Akleh’s death independently, rejecting Israeli calls for a joint inquiry and for the bullet to be assessed in an Israeli laboratory under international supervision.
Palestinian officials and witnesses accused Israeli soldiers of killing Abu Akleh, dismissing Israeli claims that the journalist may have been hit by Palestinian fire during a shootout in Jenin, a city in the northern West Bank.
Palestinian leaders said that Israel could not be trusted to investigate the killing, while Israeli officials said that the Palestinians had refused to provide the bullet in order to hide the truth.
The standoff came as thousands of Palestinians from all realms of society gathered in the courtyard of the Palestinian Authority’s presidential headquarters Thursday to eulogize and bid farewell to a trailblazing journalist. Mourners included those who had worked alongside Abu Akleh, those she had interviewed and those whose homes she had entered via the television screen. Palestinian Christian and Muslim clerics converged as well.
“This crime cannot pass without punishment,” Mahmoud Abbas, the authority’s president, said in an address in front of her coffin.
“We reject a joint investigation with the Israeli state because it is the one that committed this crime, and because we don’t trust them, and we will go immediately to the International Criminal Court to pursue the criminals,” he added.
As the mourners followed her coffin out of the courtyard, many chanted her name as others shared their memories of Abu Akleh — even if from afar.
“When we saw that Shireen had been assassinated, we all felt it, in every Palestinian home,” said Thuraya Elayan, a 66-year-old Ramallah resident. “The bullet didn’t just kill Shireen — the bullet killed a piece of all of us. She was a symbol, and she lived inside all of our homes.”
The bullet has become the focus of two competing narratives about the circumstances of her death. Witnesses said Abu Akleh was shot by Israeli soldiers in an area of Jenin where there were no Palestinian gunmen. But Israeli military officials said that she was killed during a shootout between Israelis and Palestinians, and that she had been in the vicinity of a Palestinian armed with an assault rifle.
Video from the scene did not show the moment when the bullet hit Abu Akleh, or who fired it.
Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants involved in the Jenin clashes were carrying M16 assault rifles, guns that use the same 5.56 mm bullets, Israeli officials said.
While that fact could complicate efforts to determine who fired the fatal shot, a bullet can still be matched to the gun that fired it.
Each bullet bears microscopic marks specific to the weapon that discharged it, like a signature, said Lior Nadivi, an Israeli forensic ballistics expert.
That means the bullet could reveal whether or not it was fired from a rifle used by an Israeli soldier involved in the raid, according to Nadivi and two Israeli military officials.
Palestinian officials have conducted an initial autopsy of Abu Akleh’s body but have yet to release its findings. A spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority’s public prosecutor’s office said that it was still awaiting the results of the forensic tests on the bullet.
But Nadivi, a former firearms examiner in the Israeli police weapons laboratory, said he did not believe the Palestinian Authority had the capability to carry out such an examination. Only the Israelis could confirm or rule out whether one of their rifles was the source of the fatal fire, Nadivi said.
A senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military rules, said that the Israeli army was ready to assess the guns it used in the raid, if it was provided with the bullet.
Palestinian journalist Mujahid Al Saadi recounts the moment when veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank. pic.twitter.com/3Evs2IKiN2
— Middle East Eye (@MiddleEastEye) May 11, 2022
Israeli officials said they would be willing to examine the bullet in the presence of a representative of the Palestinian Authority and the United States.
But Israeli and Palestinian rights campaigners were sceptical that Israel would rigorously investigate itself, based on its track record.
“The bullet can help only if the soldiers have surrendered their guns immediately,” said Michael Sfard, a legal adviser to Yesh Din, a rights group that investigates Israeli abuses in the West Bank. “Otherwise they could manipulate their guns.”
Besides, Sfard said, there were many other ways in which Israel could investigate the shooting without having the bullet, including by examining video recorded by Israeli military drones that typically accompany Israeli soldiers during such raids.
“The bottom line is that justice from the military authorities is a kind of miracle,” Sfard said. “They do happen once in a blue moon, but we haven’t had one for a very long time.”
An Israeli military official said that two hours after the shooting, the military brought in all the soldiers who were at the scene for debriefing and gathered all the video footage from the cameras they used during the raid.
Beyond that, Israeli officials, like the Palestinian Authority, have released few details of their investigation.
A veteran and widely admired journalist for Al-Jazeera, a Qatari-owned news channel, Abu Akleh was shot after arriving in Jenin to cover clashes between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military. Israeli soldiers have conducted regular raids in Jenin since March, after several fatal attacks on Israelis by Palestinian residents of the area.
She and several other journalists at the scene were wearing blue flak jackets and helmets marked with the word “Press,” and her colleagues believe she was deliberately targeted. Israeli officials said she might have been killed during crossfire, by either Palestinian or Israeli forces.
At her funeral procession Thursday, many people held up posters with a picture of Abu Akleh in a blue press protective vest — much like the one she was wearing when she was shot — and the words “The coverage will continue.”
As the coffin holding her body was carried through Ramallah, people chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Shireen.”
One woman tried shouting a more nationalistic chant: “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Palestine.” But no one else joined in.
This moment was for Abu Akleh.
Abbas awarded her the Star of Jerusalem, also known as the Quds Star. One of the highest honours the Palestinian president can bestow, it is traditionally awarded to ministers, ambassadors and members of Parliament.
He described Abu Akleh as a “martyr for truth and for the free word.”
After his remarks, Abu Akleh’s coffin was carried into a waiting ambulance to be taken to Jerusalem, where a family funeral will be held Friday. She is due to be buried in a Christian cemetery, next to her mother and near her father.
Salma Dideen, 6, was among the crowd in Ramallah. She sat on her uncle’s shoulder, wearing a blue frilly dress, holding a poster of Abu Akleh and mouthing some of the chants.
When asked why she had wanted to attend, she said in a voice barely audible above the chants, “Because Shireen was martyred.”
Salma’s uncle, Mahmoud Husseini, 30, expanded on the sentiment.
“We are here as solidarity with Shireen,” he said. “She is a daughter of the nation. She always put herself in danger just to convey the stories of Palestinians.”