Al Jazeera has accused Israel of deliberately killing one of its reporters during a firefight between Israeli security forces and Palestinian gunmen in the occupied West Bank town of Jenin.
Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, a Palestinian American and one of the Arab world’s best-known journalists, who had covered the conflict for decades, was shot in the head on Wednesday morning and taken to hospital in a critical condition.
She had been covering a military raid in the Jenin refugee camp, a stronghold of the Palestinian Fatah movement and historical flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abu Akleh was wearing a helmet and body armour clearly marked “press”. The Qatar-based television network said her colleagues at the scene said the veteran reporter was shot by Israeli forces.
Al Jazeera called on the international community to hold Israeli forces accountable for their “intentional targeting and killing” of Abu Akleh. “In a blatant murder, violating international laws and norms, the Israeli occupation forces assassinated in cold blood Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Palestine,” it said.
Shatha Hanaysha, a journalist for Quds News Network who witnessed the incident, said: “Even after she fell to the ground the fire did not stop and none of us were able to reach her. A guy was finally able to reach us; he helped me and started pulling her.
“We were a group wearing press gear, and Shireen was even wearing the helmet. So it is obvious that the one who shot her meant to hit an exposed part of her body. This is an assassination.”
The White House said it strongly condemned Abu Akleh’s killing and called for a thorough investigation to determine the circumstances of her death. Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, called for a thorough investigation.
The Israeli military said its troops shot back after coming under “massive fire” in Jenin and that “there is a possibility, now being looked into, that reporters were hit – possibly by shots fired by Palestinian gunmen.”
The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, claimed there was “a considerable chance that armed Palestinians, who fired wildly, were the ones who brought about the journalist’s unfortunate death.”
But later on Wednesday the Israeli military chief, Lt Gen Aviv Kochavi, appeared to back away from officials’ earlier assertions that Palestinians were to blame, saying: “At this stage we cannot determine by whose fire she was harmed and we regret her death.”
The Palestinian health ministry confirmed Abu Akleh’s death and said a second Al Jazeera employee, Ali Samodi, a producer, was wounded.
Samodi told the New Palestinian from hospital: “We were there to cover the events in Jenin camp. All of a sudden [the Israelis] opened fire at us, they didn’t ask us to leave or stop. The first bullet hit me, the second one hit Shireen … There were no resistance fighters around us. If there were, we wouldn’t have been in that area.”
In comments to Agence France-Presse, the Israel Defence Forces firmly denied they had deliberately targeted journalists. The Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, said Israel had “offered the Palestinians a joint pathological investigation”.
The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, said he held the Israeli military fully responsible for Abu Akleh’s death.
Violence has surged in Jenin in recent weeks. Israeli security forces have stepped up operations in the area after a spate of deadly terrorist attacks targeting Israelis that have left 19 people dead, launching near-daily raids on the hunt for terrorism suspects. Several of the attackers came from the Jenin area.
Three Arab-Israelis and 28 Palestinians have died, among them Abu Akleh, an unarmed woman and two apparent bystanders, as well as the perpetrators of attacks and Palestinian gunmen fighting with Israeli forces during the raids.
Accompanying clashes at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, a site holy for Jews and Muslims, have also raised fears of escalation between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in control of the Gaza Strip.
Hamas has refrained from claiming responsibility for most of the recent terror attacks against Israelis, but in speeches leaders have praised the violence and called on Palestinians to carry out more, leading Israel to warn of retaliatory measures.
Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day-war last May, in part triggered by unrest at al-Aqsa, in which 256 Gazans and 14 people in Israel died. Last year’s fighting was the third round of full-scale conflict between the Israeli state and the Palestinian militant group since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 and Israel and Egypt imposed a punishing blockade.
In April, UK-based lawyers with the International Federation of Journalists filed submissions to the international criminal court alleging a “systematic targeting of journalists” by Israeli forces.
At least 144 Palestinian journalists have been wounded by Israeli forces across the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem since 2018, hurt by live fire and rubber bullets, as well as stun grenades, teargas and beatings with batons, according to Reporters Without Borders.
The Palestinian film-maker Yaser Murtaja was the last journalist to be killed covering the conflict, shot by Israeli snipers during protests on the Gaza Strip frontier in 2018. Another journalist, Yousef Abu Hussein, was killed when his home was hit by an airstrike during the bombing of Gaza last May.
Abu Akleh had worked for Al Jazeera since 1997 and was well known across the Arab world for her reporting during the second intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation, and Israeli-Palestinian affairs since.
“Shireen was a brave, kind, and high-integrity journalist that I and millions of Palestinians grew up watching,” the prominent Ramallah-based activist Fadi Quran said in a tweet, calling her death “a devastating tragedy”.
Al Jazeera reported that Abu Akleh’s home in East Jerusalem had been raided by Israeli security forces who confiscated Palestinian flags and prevented mourners from playing nationalistic songs.
The head of the medicine department at al-Najah University in Nablus told Al Jazeera that the reporter’s body had been transferred for an autopsy on the orders of the Palestinian public prosecution.
A crowd gathered near Al Jazeera’s offices in Ramallah on Wednesday afternoon to honour the journalist after her body arrived in an ambulance. A funeral will be held on Friday morning at the Palestinian presidency headquarters in Ramallah.
During last year’s war in Gaza, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a building housing the local offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press. Residents were warned to evacuate and no one was hurt in the strike. Israel said Hamas was using the building as a command centre but provided no evidence.