Why a bullet is the focus of investigations into the murder of journalists

JERUSALEM – The bullet that killed US Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on Wednesday has become a central point of contention in competing efforts by Israelis and Palestinians to investigate who shot her.

The Palestinian Authority on Thursday turned down a request to allow Israeli officials to examine the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, a prominent Al Jazeera reporter who was killed in the occupied West Bank during an Israeli strike.

The official said he would investigate Abu Akleh’s death independently, rejecting Israeli calls for a joint investigation and for the bullet to be evaluated in an Israeli laboratory under international supervision.

Palestinian officials and witnesses accused Israeli soldiers of killing Abu Akleh, rejecting 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 Israel could not be trusted to investigate the killing, while Israeli officials said Palestinians refused to provide the bullet to hide the truth.

The standoff came as thousands of Palestinians from all walks of society gathered in the courtyard of the Palestinian Authority’s presidential headquarters on Thursday to praise and bid farewell to a pioneering journalist. The bereaved included those who worked alongside Abu Akleh, those she interviewed and those whose homes she entered via the television screen. Palestinian Christian and Muslim clerics also converged.

“This crime cannot go unpunished,” said Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the authority, in a speech in front of his coffin.

“We reject a joint investigation with the State of Israel, because it was they who committed this crime and because we do not trust them, and we will immediately go to the International Criminal Court to pursue the criminals,” he added.

As the mourners followed his coffin out of the courtyard, many chanted his name while others shared their memories of Abu Akleh – even if from afar.

“When we saw that Shireen had been murdered, we all felt it, in every Palestinian household,” said Thuraya Elayan, a 66-year-old resident of Ramallah. “The bullet didn’t just kill Shireen – the bullet killed a piece of all of us. She was a symbol and lived inside all of our homes.”

The bullet became the focus of two competing narratives about the circumstances of his death. Witnesses said Abu Akleh was shot by Israeli soldiers in an area of ​​Jenin where there were no Palestinian snipers. But Israeli military officials said she was shot during a shootout between Israelis and Palestinians, and that she was in the vicinity of a Palestinian armed with an assault rifle.

Video of the scene did not show when the bullet hit Abu Akleh, or who fired it.

Both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants involved in the clashes in Jenin were carrying M16 assault rifles, weapons that use the same 5.56mm bullets, Israeli officials said.

While this fact can complicate efforts to determine who fired the fatal shot, a bullet can still be compared to the gun that fired it.

Each bullet bears microscopic marks specific to the weapon that fired it, like a signature, said Lior Nadivi, an expert in Israeli forensic ballistics.

That means the bullet can reveal whether or not it was fired from a rifle used by an Israeli soldier involved in the attack, according to Nadivi and two Israeli military officials.

Palestinian authorities performed an initial autopsy of Abu Akleh’s body, but have not yet released their findings. A spokeswoman for the Palestinian Authority’s prosecutor’s office said it was still awaiting the results of forensic tests on the bullet.

But Nadivi, a former firearms examiner at the Israeli police weapons laboratory, said he did not believe the Palestinian Authority had the capacity to carry out such an examination. Only the Israelis can 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 under military rules, said the Israeli army is ready to assess the weapons it used in the attack, if supplied with the bullet.

Israeli officials said they would be willing to examine the bullet in the presence of a Palestinian Authority and US representative.

But Israeli and Palestinian rights advocates were skeptical that Israel would rigorously investigate itself, based on its record.

“The bullet can only help if soldiers surrender their weapons immediately,” said Michael Sfard, legal adviser to Yesh Din, a human rights group that investigates Israeli abuses in the West Bank. “Otherwise, they could manipulate your weapons.”

In addition, Sfard said, there were many other ways Israel could investigate the shooting without having the bullet — including by examining videos recorded by Israeli military drones that typically accompany Israeli soldiers during such attacks.

“The end result is that the justice of the military authorities is something of a miracle,” Sfard said. “They happen once in a blue moon, but we haven’t had one in a 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 questioning and gathered all the video footage from the cameras they used during the attack.

In addition, Israeli officials such as the Palestinian Authority have released few details of their investigation.

A veteran and widely admired journalist for Al Jazeera, the 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 been carrying out regular attacks in Jenin since March, following several fatal attacks on Israelis by Palestinian residents of the area.

She and several other journalists at the scene wore blue bulletproof vests and helmets marked with the word “press”, and her colleagues believe she was deliberately targeted. Israeli officials said she may have been killed in crossfire by Palestinian or Israeli forces.

At her funeral procession on Thursday, many people held up posters with a picture of Abu Akleh in a blue press protective vest – much like the one she wore when she was shot – and the words “Coverage will continue”.

As the coffin that held her body was carried by Ramallah, people chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Shireen.”

One woman tried to shout a more nationalist chant: “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Palestine.” But no one else joined.

This moment went to Ms. Abu Akleh.

Mr. Abbas bestowed on him the Star of Jerusalem, also known as the Quds Star. One of the highest honors the Palestinian president can bestow is traditionally bestowed on ministers, ambassadors and members of Parliament.

He described Abu Akleh as a “martyr of truth and the free word”.

Following his remarks, Abu Akleh’s coffin was taken to an ambulance waiting to be taken to Jerusalem, where a family funeral will be held on Friday. She is to be buried in a Christian cemetery, next to her mother and close to her father.

Salma Dideen, 6, was among the crowd in Ramallah. She sat on her uncle’s shoulder, wearing a frilly blue dress, holding a poster of Mrs. Abu Akleh and singing some of the chants.

When asked why she wanted to attend, she said in a barely audible voice over the chants, “Because Shireen was martyred.”

Salma’s uncle, Mahmoud Husseini, 30, expanded on the sentiment.

“We are here in solidarity with Shireen,” he said. “She is a daughter of the nation. She has always put herself in danger just to convey the stories of the Palestinians.”

Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Raja Abdulrahim from Ramallah, West Bank. Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Nazareth, Israel, and Myra Noveck, from Jerusalem.

Leave a Comment