Calls have grown for an independent and impartial investigation into the killing of veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead as she covered an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank.
The Qatar-based TV channel said in a statement on Wednesday that Abu Akleh, 51, was “assassinated in cold blood” by “the Israeli occupation forces”.
Another Al Jazeera journalist, producer Ali al-Samudi, was wounded in the incident in which both wore helmets and vests marked “Press”. He later said no Palestinian fighters were nearby, stressing that otherwise “we would not have gone into the area”.
Majid Awais, a witness, told AFP that Abu Akleh “turned in panic” when she saw her colleague al-Samudi was shot, and that she was struck by the fatal bullet moments later.
Her death put the spotlight on Israeli attacks on Palestinian journalists and came nearly a year after an Israeli air strike destroyed a building that housed the offices of Al Jazeera and The Associated Press news agency in Gaza.
‘Thorough and independent’
The Palestinian Authority said it held Israel “responsible” for the killing of Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, who was hit by a bullet in the head during the Israeli operation in the Jenin refugee camp.
The Hamas movement, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, condemned the killing “in the strongest terms,” calling it an “assassination”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “appalled” by the incident and called for an “independent and transparent investigation” into the shooting to “ensure that those responsible are held accountable”.
“The Secretary-General condemns all attacks and killings of journalists and stresses that journalists must never be the target of violence. Media workers should be able to carry out their work freely and without harassment, intimidation or the fear of being targeted,” he said in a statement issued via his spokesperson on Wednesday.
The European Union also called for an “independent” investigation into Abu Akleh’s death, while the office of the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said it was “appalled” and urged for a probe too.
Meanwhile, the United States envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called for the killing to be “transparently investigated”.
Commenting on the developments, former Al Jazeera English journalist Ayman Mohideen, who worked closely with Abu Akleh while reporting from Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, said the US government should push for an independent investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh, who was also a US citizen.
“The most important thing is that if they [US authorities] want to see an investigation, it has to be thorough and independent,” said Mohideen.
But the US State Department said Israel was capable of conducting a thorough probe into the death of Abu Akleh.
“The Israelis have the wherewithal and the capabilities to conduct a thorough, comprehensive investigation,” spokesman Ned Price told a news briefing.
Earlier on Wednesday, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said it was “likely” that “armed Palestinians – who were indiscriminately firing at the time – were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist”.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz later said that “the preliminary investigation conducted by the (army) in the last several hours indicate that no gunfire was directed at the journalist – however, the investigation is ongoing”.
Army chief Aviv Kohavi said, that “at this stage, it is not possible to determine the source of the gunfire which hit her”.
Asked about Israel’s openness to an international investigation, army spokesman Amnon Shefler said the military’s internal investigative systems were “robust” and that it would conduct its own probe.
Shefler told reporters Israel “would never deliberately target non-combatants,” calling Abu Akleh’s death “a tragedy that should not have occurred”.
Israel has however publicly offered to participate in a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority.
But Palestine’s UN ambassador Riyad Mansour said his country would “not accept” an investigation by the “Israeli occupying authority” and has held the Israeli army responsible for the “assassination” of Abu Akleh.
Addressing reporters at the UN headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Mansour said: “The story of the Israeli side does not hold water, it is fictitious and it is not in line with reality and we do not accept to have an investigation on this issue with those who are the criminals in conducting this event itself.”
Jenin as a flashpoint
The Israeli army has stepped up operations in Jenin, an historic flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in recent weeks.
Several suspects blamed for deadly attacks on Israelis were from the area.
Tensions have risen in recent months as Israel has grappled with a wave of attacks, which has killed at least 18 people since March 22.
More than 20 Palestinians have been killed since the end of March, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
Separately on Wednesday, the ministry said Israeli soldiers had shot and killed an 18-year-old Palestinian in the West Bank near Ramallah. The ministry did not provide any further details, and Israeli authorities did not comment.