JERUSALEM – A spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force has defended the military’s actions over the death in May of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, whose killing he said was accidental, and has said he’s aware that Pope Francis recently met with the reporter’s family.
Speaking to Crux about Abu Akleh’s death, Lt.-Col. Richard Hecht, IDF Spokesperson for the Foreign Media, said, “We really believe we’ve done everything we can to understand what happened there, we’ve apologized, we looked at it from the legal perspective [and] also the command perspective.”
“It’s a tragedy, but it’s a warzone, and that’s it. At some point you have to make closure, but I know the family hasn’t. But we believe that we’re right, we’ve done what we have to do,” he said.
Asked whether Pope Francis’s meeting with the family had any reverberations within Israel or the IDF, Hecht, who is originally from Glasgow, said “no…we’re following it,” but it wasn’t seen as a political meeting, but rather a pastoral gesture to comfort people who are grieving.
Pope Francis in October met with the family of slain Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a recognized Palestinian-American journalist who worked with Arabic-language news site Al Jazeera for 25 years prior to her May 11 death.
A special Mass was celebrated in her honor after the Oct. 26 meeting at the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin organized by the Greek Melchite Patriarch of Antioch, Youssef Absi, and the High Presidential Commission for Church Affairs in Palestine, which was attended by members of Abu Akleh’s family and the Palestinian Embassy to the Holy See.
Abu Akleh was fatally shot and killed while covering a raid by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on the Jenin Refugee camp in the West Bank, and her death sparked global outcry.
Hailed as one of the most acclaimed names across the Middle East for her decades of reporting, specifically in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, Abu Akleh was wearing a blue vest with the word “PRESS” written on it at the time she was shot, leading some, including members of Abu Akleh’s family, to accuse the IDF of intentionally targeting her and other members of the press corps.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Israeli authorities claimed Abu Akleh was killed by Palestinian gunmen during the fighting. Eye-witness accounts, however, including from colleagues at the scene, testified that no fighting was happening in the area at the time.
Amid a wave of international backlash and heavy scrutiny, Israel later admitted that Abu Akleh was most likely killed by an Israeli soldier, but that the killing was a mistake and that the shooter had not seen her press vest.
An internal probe conducted by the IDF found that they had strictly complied with their rules of engagement, and the death was deemed a tragic accident.
In July, a separate probe by the US State Department found that Israeli forces were most likely responsible for Abu Akleh’s death, but that they had not killed her intentionally.
Her niece, Lina, has been among the most vocal critics of the Israeli response. She’s publicly disputed the Israeli Defense Force’s explanation of the incident, accusing Israel of targeting her aunt.
In the months since her aunt’s death, Lina has become the face of her family’s campaign for accountability and justice. She was recently named among Time Magazine’s 100 emerging leaders for “publicly demanding scrutiny of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians,” and she has also met with top U.S. officials and lawmakers, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
On Dec. 6 Al Jazeera submitted a formal request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Abu Akleh’s death which includes a dossier on a six-month investigation conducted by the network gathering eyewitness testimony and video footage.
However, HonestReporting, a website dedicated to correcting misinformation and ideological prejudice in reporting on Israel, whose Executive Director Gil Hoffman recently gave a keynote speech to a major gathering of Evangelicals taking place in Jerusalem, claims to have linked key witnesses in Al Jazeera’s case to Islamic Jihad, which has been designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.
In a recent article, HonestReporting reported that the witness, who lives in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, has published images on his social media accounts posing with Islamic Jihad’s flag and holding military-style rifles.
The article called Al Jazeera’s stance that Abu Akleh was targeted “bizarre,” saying the IDF was cleared by the US State Department in July of any wrongdoing in the incident.
On the opening night of the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem, Frank Melloul, CEO of Israeli network station I24 News, said there is a conscious bias against Israel among external outlets that cover Israeli affairs, including Al Jazeera.
Melloul argued that Al Jazeera and others “change the story” and distort the facts, which is where I24 News steps in to provide objectivity and set the record straight.
In his comments to Crux, Hecht voiced agreement, saying “of course” there is a bias. This is especially obvious, he said, “when you look at journalists being killed in combat.”
“There’s been hundreds killed over the last two years, and the focus is only on Israel. So, there’s a certain sense of anti-Zionism, it’s also connected to the woke movement, LGBT, anti-Zionism,” he said.
Hecht said the IDF knows “that we’re up against a big force that’s biased and the Palestinians are running on that narrative.”
He did offer words of regret for Abu Akleh’s death, however, saying, “Our heart goes out to the family.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen