A prominent Palestinian-American Al Jazeera reporter was shot dead during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, with Palestinians and the news channel accusing Israel of killing her and Israel’s leader saying she was likely hit by Palestinian fire.
Veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, was wearing a press vest that clearly marked her as “Press” while reporting in the city of Jenin, the Qatar-based outlet said.
She was covering the latest arrest operation launched by the Israeli military amid deadly Arab attacks in Israel.
The death of a distinguished reporter who has been covering Palestinian affairs and the Middle East for over two decades at the popular news channel watched by millions in the Arab world seemed likely to add more fuel to a surging conflict.
In an Al Jazeera video captured in the moments around Abu Akleh’s killing, gunfire can be heard in the first few seconds before a man yells “Shireen! Shireen! Ambulance!”
The camera then moves around the corner to show Abu Akleh slumped face-forward on the ground. Other journalists are seen rushing to take cover.
Another Palestinian journalist at the scene, Ali Samoodi, was also wounded.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Al Jazeera described Abu Akleh’s death as blatant, cold-blooded murder by the Israeli military, which said dozens of Palestinian gunmen had confronted troops who arrested a Hamas militant in Jenin.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Abbas was making unfounded allegations, before Israel conducted a “thorough investigation” of the events.
“It appears likely that armed Palestinians – who were firing indiscriminately at the time – were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist,” Bennett said in a statement.
The White House strongly condemned the killing and called for an investigation into her death.
On Twitter, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said her death was an affront to media freedom everywhere.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said “our findings will be relayed, with transparency … to our American friends and also to the Palestinian Authority and others in the world with whom we are in contact”.
Samoodi said Israeli forces “suddenly opened fire” at them during the Jenin operation. He disputed an Israeli military account that gunmen were nearby when the two journalists were shot.
Since March, Palestinians and members of Israel’s Arab minority have killed 18 people, including three police officers and a security guard, in attacks in Israel and the West Bank that have mostly targeted civilians.
Some of the assailants have come from Jenin. The city has been a main target of Israeli arrest raids in the West Bank that have often sparked clashes and brought the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces or armed civilians since the beginning of the year to at least 42.
The casualties include armed members of militant groups, lone assailants and bystanders.
Visits by Jewish pilgrims over the past weeks to Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site and the most sacred place in Judaism, have stoked Palestinian anger.
Preliminary results of an autopsy ordered by the Palestinian Authority showed that Abu Akleh died of a bullet wound to the head, the director of the Palestinian Forensic Medicine Institute said in the West Bank city of Nablus.
He declined to give further information when asked whether the findings showed that Abu Akleh had been hit by an Israeli round.
Treated for his wounds in a hospital in Jenin, Samoodi told reporters: “They (Israeli soldiers) didn’t ask us to leave and they didn’t ask us to stop (filming). They fired at us. One bullet hit me and another hit Shireen. They killed her in cold blood.”
An Israeli military spokesman, briefing foreign journalists and describing Abu Akleh’s death as tragic, said Israeli troops would never deliberately target a non-combatant. He said there had been three direct exchanges of fire with Palestinian gunmen during the raid.
World leaders, human rights defenders and press freedom groups condemned the killing and called for an investigation.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, recalled being interviewed by the “well respected” Abu Akleh late last year and described her death as “really horrifying.”
In a Reuters video, Abu Akleh’s colleagues were seen standing around her body, which was wrapped in the Palestinian flag with a press jacket on top, as a priest said a prayer.