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A soldier likely killed a Palestinian-American journalist, Israeli army says

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Who killed veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. For the first time, Israel has announced one of its soldiers was likely responsible. Abu Akleh was killed four months ago while covering an Israeli operation against Palestinian gunmen in the occupied West Bank. She was Palestinian American. The U.S. has demanded accountability for her death. NPR's Daniel Estrin has been covering this case. He joins us from Tel Aviv. Daniel, what conclusions did Israel reach?

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, the military says there is a, quote, "high possibility" that its soldier fired the bullet. They say there is still a possibility a Palestinian did it. This, though, is the closest to the army taking some responsibility. But they say there's no reason to punish anyone. They say the soldier had limited visibility in his armored jeep. He mistakenly identified her as a gunman. And they say it's tragic but justifiable. This was during an Israeli operation combating a wave of Palestinian attacks. Soldiers were under heavy Palestinian gunfire that morning. The military advocate general reviewed all the evidence that the - in investigation of the military and decided there was no evidence of criminal intent. So no soldiers are being investigated. The army has not explained why they determined it was OK for the soldier to open fire - and this was caught on tape - when it was quiet for minutes and there was no gunfire of any Palestinians as the journalist approached wearing her vest, which was marked press.

MARTINEZ: What took Israel until now to acknowledge its soldier was likely responsible? I know that's something the U.S. concluded a long time ago - months ago, actually.

ESTRIN: That's right. And also, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN all had experts examine video evidence. And they reached the same conclusion, that Israel was likely responsible. The army was conducting its own investigation, looking at drone footage, collecting evidence. The noteworthy thing, A, is that it's not that it took four months here, but that Israel even acknowledged potential responsibility at all. Israel's track record is that it does not investigate many or all Palestinian casualties. What was different here? Shireen Abu Akleh was a U.S. citizen. And the U.S. pushed Israel to cooperate and Palestinian authorities to cooperate on an investigation and reach a conclusion and put this case to rest.

MARTINEZ: So how is Israel's announcement being received?

ESTRIN: Well, Shireen Abu Akleh's family is disappointed but not surprised. And they want the International Criminal Court to investigate. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, a leading group, accuses Israel of, quote, "outrageous policy" in the West Bank. They say Israel permits its soldiers to open fire with little restriction. And, indeed, scores of Palestinians have been killed this year, both gunmen and uninvolved civilians, including at least one Palestinian killed in a firefight with soldiers today.

MARTINEZ: So just to be clear - no soldiers held accountable. So then, Daniel, what's the takeaway here? I mean, is there any way to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future?

ESTRIN: The takeaway is we're going to have to see how the U.S. responds. I mean, we have seen a vague State Department statement that welcomed Israel's announcement, but saying that, quote, "we underscore accountability in this case, such as policies and procedures to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future." So that's the question. She was an American citizen. Will the U.S. continue to press Israel? We haven't seen any evidence that the Israeli army is taking any measures to change its standard operating procedures to prevent this in the future.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thanks.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "LANGUAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.