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May 22, 2024
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Major Media Outlets Ignored Eyewitness Testimony on the Death of Shireen Abu Akleh

Shoddy investigations jumped to premature conclusions.

Nearly two months after Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in Jenin, the Palestinian Authority finally released the bullet that killed her. Abu Akleh was shot on May 11 during an IDF raid that followed a surge of terror attacks, leading to enormous controversy over who was responsible: Israeli soldiers or the Palestinian terrorists they were fighting.

An analysis of the bullet was performed over the July 4 weekend under the supervision of the U.S. State Department in hopes of finding an answer. But the analysis found that the bullet was too badly damaged to reach any conclusions as to which side had fired it.

As a result, many questions about Abu Akleh’s death still remain unanswered. However, this has not stopped major media outlets from jumping to conclusions.

Before the bullet was handed over for examination, CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post all conducted purportedly thorough investigations that concluded Israeli soldiers in military vehicles were responsible for killing Abu Akleh. CNN’s investigation, bylined by no fewer than 10 journalists, was the most problematic. Without sufficient evidence, it concluded that Israel had intentionally targeted Abu Akleh. But CNN was not alone, because all three investigations failed to review contemporaneous accounts of the incident from two Palestinian journalists who were with Abu Akleh at the time of her death.

Abu Akleh was part of a group of four journalists when she was shot. This group included Shatha Hanaysha and Ali Samoudi. Both Hanaysha and Samoudi spoke with Arabic news outlets about the event, and their testimony indicated the presence of Palestinian gunmen at the scene.

On the day the shooting occurred, Hanaysha told Al Jazeera that, during the exchange of fire, “we were standing across from a building with snipers.” She also said that people pointed at the building in question, indicating that shots had been fired from that direction. Hanaysha claimed the snipers were Israeli. But if the only Israeli soldiers were the ones in or next to the military vehicles 200 meters—roughly two city blocks—away, as reported by CNN, the Times and the Post, who were the gunmen Hanaysha saw?

Hanaysha’s story changed when she spoke to CNN. She asserted there were no Palestinian gunmen in the area, and did not mention snipers. CNN, in turn, claimed their investigation offers “evidence—including two videos of the scene of the shooting—that there was no active combat, nor any Palestinian militants, near Abu Akleh in the moments leading up to her death.”

Why did Hanaysha change her story? None of the 10 CNN journalists who worked on the investigation seem to have asked her. Yet CNN’s conclusion that Israel “targeted” Abu Akleh was in large part based on Hanaysha’s statement to that effect.

As for Samoudi, he was shot just before Abu Akleh was killed. The same day, he was interviewed by Arabic-language news outlet The Arabic Post. CAMERA has translated his comments: “We heard the sound of bullets pouring on us from the direction where the occupation’s soldiers were concentrated. They were on the rooftops of the buildings in front of us.”

Like Hanaysha, Samoudi told his interviewer, “There were no resistance warriors, militants or stone throwers, because we were in an open area.” But again, if the only IDF soldiers were two blocks away, then who was on the rooftops of the buildings in front of Samoudi?

The logical inference is that they were Palestinian gunmen who Samoudi and Hanaysha mistook for Israelis.

The New York Times spoke extensively to Samoudi. Yet Samoudi somehow failed to tell the Times what he told The Arabic Post. Instead, the Times wrote that “the evidence reviewed by the Times showed that there were no armed Palestinians near [Abu Akleh] when she was shot.”

The Times was aware of Samoudi’s earlier statements about gunmen on the roofs of buildings. Yet a Times editor told CAMERA that Samoudi’s earlier comments had been “ruled out.” The editor did not say why. The Times seems to have relied on the absence of video evidence, writing, “While no video has emerged that shows the fatal moment, video taken in the seconds before and after her killing shows no armed Palestinians in her vicinity.” Of course, just because gunmen or snipers whose presence was attested to by eyewitnesses were not captured on video doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

The Washington Post’s investigation is perhaps the strangest. The Post spoke to both Hanaysha and Samoudi. Hanaysha does not seem to have told the Post what she told Al Jazeera, and Samoudi does not seem to have told The Washington Post what he told The Arabic Post. Instead, he told The Washington Post that “the shots seemed to come from the military vehicles.” The Washington Post, like the Times, does not seem to have asked Samoudi about his earlier comments. Yet the Post itself acknowledged that two subsequent bursts of gunfire “point to a shooter in a different location from the first two bursts, [forensic analyst Steven] Beck said, estimating they may have been fired from roughly 10-30 meters (32-99 feet) away from the journalists.”

The Washington Post stated that researchers from Carnegie Mellon said, “The third and fourth bursts indicate a second shooter, but they could not determine this person’s distance from the journalists because of the videos’ poor audio quality.”

Nonetheless, The Washington Post still concluded that its analysis “found no evidence of a firefight in the moments before Abu Akleh was killed.”

This is possible, but the Post nonetheless confirmed that there were other gunmen in the area and ignored its own witnesses’ prior statements. It’s worth noting that some at The Washington Post reached their conclusions about Israel’s guilt before any investigation had been undertaken at all.

Given that the ballistic evidence was inconclusive, people should be wary of reaching any reliable conclusion about who shot Abu Akleh. And even if the bullet was fired by the IDF, the likelihood that Palestinian gunmen were in close proximity is directly relevant to whether her shooting was accidental or not. So why did these news outlets ignore the contemporaneous testimony of eyewitnesses? And will any of them follow up now?

The likelihood that there were Palestinian gunmen in the area doesn’t necessarily mean that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was fired by one of them. It’s most likely that it will never be conclusively proven who shot her. It seems clear, however, that the most likely scenario is that Abu Akleh was accidentally killed in a crossfire. This is a tragedy, but shoddy investigations designed to reach predetermined conclusions about her death serve no one, including Abu Akleh.

Karen Bekker is the assistant director of the media response team at CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a media-monitoring, research and membership organization devoted to promoting accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East.

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