The U.S. State Department said Monday the bullet that killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was too damaged to reach an absolute conclusion but there is "reason to believe" she was targeted and that it was likely fired from an Israeli position.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price, announcing the results of the probe, said "independent, third-party examiners" had undertaken an "extremely detailed forensic analysis" of the bullet that killed her after the Palestinian Authority handed it over to them.
Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian-American correspondent who was well known and respected throughout the Arab world, was shot and killed while covering an Israeli military raid on May 11 in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. Palestinian eyewitnesses, including her crew, say Israeli troops killed her and that there were no threats in the immediate vicinity.
Israel says she was killed during a complex battle with Palestinians and that only a forensic analysis of the bullet would confirm whether it was fired by an Israeli soldier or a Palestinian fighter. It has strongly denied she was deliberately targeted but says an Israeli soldier may have hit her by mistake during an exchange of fire with a militant.
An Associated Press (AP) reconstruction of her killing lent support to accounts by Palestinian eyewitnesses, including her crew, that she was killed by Israeli forces. Subsequent investigations by CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post reached similar conclusions, as did monitoring by the office of the U.N. human rights chief.
U.S. security officials examined the results of separate Palestinian and Israeli investigations and "concluded that gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh," Price said in a statement, referring to the Israel Defense Forces by its acronym.
The U.S. "found no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances during an IDF-led military operation against factions," Price said.
The Israeli military presented the findings as part of its own investigation in a statement that was likely to anger the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA has adamantly rejected any Israeli role in the probe and refused to share the bullet with Israeli authorities.
The PA handed the bullet over to U.S. officials while insisting it was still opposed to any cooperation with Israel.
The Israeli military said that while the bullet remained in the custody of U.S. officials throughout the process, it was examined by Israeli experts in a forensic laboratory in Israel.
Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, the army chief of staff, ordered the investigation be continued "using all available means," the military said in a statement. It said any decision on whether to launch a criminal investigation would only be made after the operational investigation is completed.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued a similar statement, saying "unfortunately, it is not possible to determine the source of the shooting – and as such, the investigation will continue." His statement did not include any details about who analyzed the bullet.
U.S. officials said a third-party expert, neither Israeli nor Palestinian, examined the fragment as part of the U.S. review, and that it remained in U.S. possession throughout the review.
The Palestinian Authority and Al-Jazeera accused Israeli forces of deliberately targeting Abu Akleh within hours of her death.
Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the PA holds Israel "fully responsible" for Abu Akleh's killing and will not accept "any manipulation of the results of the Palestinian investigation."
The PA administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security matters.
Rights groups say Israeli investigations of the shooting deaths of Palestinians often languish for months or years before being quietly closed and that soldiers are rarely held accountable. The Israeli rights group B'Tselem dismissed the U.S. announcement as a "whitewash."
"All investigations published so far conclude that Israel is responsible," it said. "It is not clear on what grounds does the U.S. State Department seek to dismiss her killing as 'the result of tragic circumstances' and not as a crime for which those responsible should be held to account."
Abu Akleh's family issued a statement saying the U.S. announcement was "insulting to Shireen's memory."
"All available evidence suggests that a U.S. citizen was the subject of an extrajudicial killing by a foreign government that receives billions of dollars in American military aid each year to perpetuate a prolonged and entrenched military occupation of millions of Palestinians," they said.
Abu Akleh, who was 51, was a widely known and respected on-air correspondent who rose to fame two decades ago during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli rule. She documented the harsh realities of life under Israeli military rule – now well into its sixth decade with no end in sight – for viewers across the Arab world.
Israeli police drew widespread criticism from around the world when they beat mourners and pallbearers at her funeral in Jerusalem on May 14. An Israeli newspaper last month reported that a police investigation found wrongdoing by some of its officers, but said those who supervised the event will not be seriously punished.
Jenin has long been a bastion of the Palestinian opposition, and several recent attacks inside Israel have been carried out by young men from in and around the town. Israel frequently carries out military raids in Jenin, which it says are aimed at arresting militants and preventing more attacks.
Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has built settlements where nearly 500,000 Israelis live alongside nearly 3 million Palestinians. The Palestinians want the territory to form the main part of a future state.
Peace talks broke down more than a decade ago, and with Israel now in a new election campaign, they are unlikely to resume anytime soon. The caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians, but right-wing parties that oppose Palestinian statehood appear positioned to dominate the election.