FILE PHOTO: People light candles during a vigil in memory of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid, outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, May 16, 2022. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma/File Photo
Israel Defense Forces: Soldier had no idea shots were fired toward journalist
01:54 - Source: CNN
Jerusalem CNN  — 

The Israel Defense Forces have ​admitted for the first time that there is a “high possibility” Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed by Israeli fire while covering an Israeli military operation in Jenin in May, the IDF announced Monday.

“[I]t appears that it is not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire which hit and killed Ms. Abu Akleh. However, there is a high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen during an exchange of fire,” the IDF said in a statement.

But the Israeli military does not intend to pursue criminal charges or prosecutions of any of the soldiers involved, IDF’s Military Advocate General’s Office said Monday in a separate statement.

“After a comprehensive examination of the incident, and based on all the findings presented, the Military Advocate General determined that under the circumstances of the incident, despite the dire result – the death of Ms. Abu Akleh and Mr. Samudi’s injury – there was no suspicion of a criminal offense that warrants the opening of an MPCID investigation,” the statement said. Abu Akleh’s producer Ali al-Samoudi was wounded in the incident.

“The decision was based on the findings of the review, which determined that IDF soldiers only aimed fire at those who were identified as armed terrorists during the incident. As such, there was no suspicion that a bullet was fired deliberately at anyone identified as a civilian and in particular at anyone identified as a journalist,” the statement said.

A senior IDF official who briefed journalists on the findings ​of the military’s investigation before they were released said the IDF troops did not know they were shooting at the press​, and said that Abu Akleh’s back “probably” being turned to the soldiers was a contributing factor. In images from the scene of the shooting, Abu Akleh is wearing a protective vest that is labeled “PRESS” on both the front and back.

“When they were firing in that direction, the soldiers were not aware they were firing at journalists. They thought they were firing at militants firing at them,” the IDF official said.

A CNN investigation in May unearthed 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. Footage obtained by CNN, corroborated by testimony from eight eyewitnesses, an audio forensic analyst and an explosive weapons expert, suggested that Israeli forces intentionally took aim at Abu Akleh.

Al Jazeera, Abu Akleh’s employer, has consistently asserted that the Israeli military is responsible for her death. The network condemned the IDF investigation, saying the delay of more than 100 days since the shooting “is intended to evade the criminal responsibility it bears for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.”

“Al Jazeera denounces the Israeli occupation army’s lack of frank recognition of its crime. The network calls for an independent international party to investigate the crime of the assassination of Shireen Abu Akleh, in order to accomplish justice for Shireen, her family and fellow journalists around the world,” the network said in a statement.

When asked about investigations, including CNN’s, that found no militants near Abu Akleh when she was shot, the IDF official said: “It is our estimate that there were militants in the vicinity of Ms. Abu Abkleh. Maybe not one meter beside her but they were in that area​,” but the official did not provide evidence to support that claim.​

“When the soldier made that decision, it was a blink of a decision,” the official said. “The soldier did not intend to injure an Al Jazeera journalist or [journalist] from any other network.”

“The soldier is sorry, and I am sorry. This was not supposed to happen and it should not happen. He did not do this on purpose,” the official said. ​He did not name the soldier.

In Monday’s briefing with reporters, the senior IDF official said the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was too badly damaged to be able to identify which gun fired it, the same conclusion a US-led forensic investigation came to.

However, the IDF has concluded that the soldier who likely fired the fatal shot was to the south of Abu Akleh in an armored military vehicle with limited range of sight, did not identify Abu Akleh as a journalist and thought he was shooting at militants.

The official said soldiers in the are