Israel has said it will conduct forensic tests on the bullet that killed the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, a day after Palestinian officials handed over the evidence to a US security coordinator for examination on what they said was the condition that Israel would not be involved.
The testing will be carried out by Israeli investigators in the presence of US observers, the Israeli military spokesperson Brig-Gen Ran Kochav told Army Radio on Sunday.
Akram al-Khatib, the general prosecutor for the Palestinian Authority (PA), told Voice of Palestine radio that the test would take place at the US embassy in Jerusalem, but that “we got guarantees from the American coordinator that the examination will be conducted by them and that the Israeli side will not take part”.
The fresh dispute threatens to derail what on Saturday had appeared to be a major step towards resolving a standoff between Israel and the Palestinians over an investigation into the Al Jazeera reporter’s death.
AFP quoted an unnamed Palestinian official later on Sunday as saying Kochav’s remarks raised questions about whether the PA could “trust the Americans”.
Abu Aqleh, 51, a well-known figure in the Arab world, was shot in the head in the West Bank city of Jenin in May during what her colleagues at the scene said was a burst of Israeli fire on a group of journalists covering an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) raid. Abu Aqleh was wearing a helmet and protective vest clearly marked “press”.
Footage of Israeli police storming her funeral procession in Jerusalem, causing pallbearers to nearly drop her coffin, added to Palestinian and international outrage.
Israel initially blamed the reporter’s death on Palestinian militants, but has since acknowledged that an IDF soldier may have “accidentally” killed her. The army has said it has identified the rifle that may have been used, but that it cannot draw any conclusions unless it is compared with the bullet to find markings left by the gun’s unique barrel rifling.
The PA previously rejected an Israeli offer to conduct a joint investigation under US supervision, saying it did not trust Israel and that its military had deliberately targeted Abu Aqleh.
Army data released under Israel’s freedom of information act and analysed by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organisation, shows Israeli soldiers have near total impunity from prosecution in cases in which Palestinians are harmed.
The US embassy said it did not have “anything new at this time” related to Sunday’s remarks from the IDF that Israeli experts would be involved in the forensic investigation, contrary to what the PA says it was told.
The UN, EU, and the PA have all called for an independent inquiry into Abu Aqleh’s death, and the Palestinians have referred the case to the international criminal court.
The official Palestinian investigation found that the Qatar-based television channel’s star reporter was killed deliberately. Investigations by the UN, as well as several journalistic inquiries, have found that the shot that killed Abu Akleh was fired by Israeli forces.
The new chapter in the war of narratives over the journalist’s killing came just over a week before an expected visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank by Joe Biden, posing a diplomatic and domestic test for Israel’s new prime minister, Yair Lapid.
A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a diplomatic matter, told the Associated Press that the issue had been raised in a recent phone call between the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and that both sides hoped to resolve the issue before Biden’s arrival on 13 July.
Abu Aqleh’s brother, Anton, said in a statement on Saturday night that the family was not “consulted or informed by any party, official or otherwise, that [a US-Palestinian investigation] was in the works or had been arranged,” calling the lack of transparency “alarming”.
“We have serious doubts that this process will lead to accountability. We will remain vigilant in our efforts to obtain justice for Shireen, no matter the obstacles, and will watch this process closely and with an extremely critical eye,” he said.