JERUSALEM – Israel's departing Prime Minister Yair Lapid doubled down Tuesday on his government's harsh condemnation of a reported investigation by the United States Department of Justice into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist, in the occupied West Bank.
A Justice Department spokesman had no comment. There were no details about when an investigation might begin and what it would involve, nor what the ramifications might be. But an FBI probe into the actions of an ally would mark a rare — if not unprecedented — step, threatening to strain close ties between the countries as Israel heads toward the most right-wing government in its history.
After a swearing-in ceremony for Israel's newly elected parliament on Tuesday, Lapid vowed Israel would not participate in an American investigation into the fatal shooting of the prominent 51-year-old Al Jazeera correspondent last May in Jenin, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. Echoing remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz the day before, Lapid said that Israeli soldiers “will not be investigated by the FBI or by any foreign country or body, however friendly.”
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority welcomed the news and promised to cooperate fully with a U.S. investigation, reflecting how Abu Akleh's case has become a point of contention in competing narratives by Israelis and Palestinians.
“This decision, even if it came late, reflects the birth of an American conviction in the absence of any serious investigation by the Israelis,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said. “(Their investigations) are no more than attempts to cover up the criminals.”
Palestinian officials, Abu Akleh’s family and Al Jazeera have accused Israel of intentionally killing Abu Akleh. Several independent investigations, including by The Associated Press, have concluded that Abu Akleh was most probably killed by Israeli fire.
The death of the veteran journalist, who covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a quarter-century, reverberated across the region and drew global outrage, throwing a spotlight on Israeli actions in the West Bank. Abu Akleh's families and supporters, along with 57 Democratic lawmakers, called on the Biden administration to launch a full probe following an inconclusive State Department assessment of the fatal bullet and the equivocal results of an Israeli military investigation.
Abu Akleh's family said it was “encouraged by the news” of an investigation on Tuesday, expressing hope that the U.S. “will use all of the investigative tools at its disposal to get answers about Shireen’s killing and hold those who are responsible for this atrocity accountable.”
A probe “gets our family closer to justice for Shireen,” their statement said.
Israel's critics contend that history has showed that the Israeli military cannot credibly investigate or prosecute itself. Israel says its investigations are independent and professional.
“We will not abandon our soldiers to foreign investigations,” Lapid told the new lawmakers. "Our strong protest has been conveyed to the Americans at the appropriate levels.”
Although Lapid was ousted from office after Israel's Nov. 1 elections, his likely replacement, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will likely maintain the same stance.
Israel initially raised the possibility that Abu Akleh had been killed by a Palestinian gunman during clashes between Israeli soldiers and militants before acknowledging in September there was a “high probability" she was killed mistakenly by an Israeli soldier. Nonetheless, Israel has vigorously denied its troops had intentionally targeted her and ruled out a criminal investigation.