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US to open investigation into Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder: Reports

The United States has informed Israeli authorities that it has decided to open its own investigation into the murder of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, several Israeli and US media reported, citing unnamed sources.

According to an Axios report on Monday, the US Department of Justice informed its counterpart in Israel that the FBI is opening an investigation into the incident.

Abu Akleh was fatally shot by Israeli forces while covering a raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin in May. The 51-year-old Al Jazeera correspondent was a US citizen and one of the best-known reporters on the conflict in the Arab World.

The scope of a US investigation, as well as what its final outcome would be, remain unclear. A spokesman for the US Department of Justice declined to comment when contacted by Al Jazeera on Monday.

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But Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel would not cooperate with “any external investigation” into the killing of Abu Akleh, Israel Army Radio reported.

“The US Department of Justice’s decision to investigate the unfortunate death of Shireen Abu Akleh is a serious mistake,” Gantz said in a statement, Reuters news agency reported.

The reports on Monday come less than two weeks after Israeli voters favored a right-wing coalition that will bring former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power.

Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer and former Justice Department official, said the decision to launch an FBI investigation into the murder of Abu Akleh means US authorities have “credible evidence” related to what happened.

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“There is credible evidence in the opinion of the FBI, based on things that have been in the public domain, regardless of Israel’s recalcitrance, to believe that a crime was committed, namely murder,” Fein told Al Jazeera.

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“And secondly, there has to be some credible evidence, in my opinion, that a US citizen, who might have dual citizenship, was the one who pulled the trigger.”

Fein said that while Israel can quickly refuse to cooperate with the investigation, the United States has many tools, including military aid and regional geopolitics, to put pressure on its ally in the Middle East. “Those kinds of levers can change the minds of the Israelis,” she said.

The position of the Biden administration

A US investigation into the assassination would mark a sea change from the initial stance of President Joe Biden’s administration.

Despite numerous calls by US lawmakers for a Washington-led investigation, the US State Department previously ruled out opening its own investigation into the incident. Instead, US officials have stressed that Israel can investigate its own troops.

Abu Akleh’s murder sparked international outrage and calls for justice from press freedom advocates.

Dozens of US lawmakers, including some staunch supporters of Israel, have signed letters urging Biden and his top advisers to seek accountability in the case. One of the letters called for an FBI investigation.

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In September, the Israeli government said it would not carry out a criminal investigation into the incident after releasing a public assessment stating there is a “high possibility” that one of its soldiers shot Abu Akleh but that it was accidental.

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Video footage, multiple witnesses, and multiple investigations by independent media outlets showed that there were no armed Palestinians in the area where Abu Akleh and other journalists were standing before Israeli soldiers began shooting at them.

After calling for “accountability” for months and saying the journalist’s killers should be prosecuted, the Biden administration changed its tune after the Israeli statement in September, and the US public push for accountability muted.

Instead, the State Department urged Israel to review its rules of engagement to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, a demand that was later publicly rejected by Israeli leaders.

On Monday, rights advocates welcomed reports of a US investigation.

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“This is an important and overdue step towards accountability for the ongoing Israeli abuses,” Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a Washington-based human rights group, said on Twitter.

Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists said that while “Israel has powerful allies and political influence in the United States… Washington also has influence over a state it supports with nearly $4 billion a year in aid.”

“You can do more than give Israel a slap on the wrist from the podiums of press conferences. You can pressure Israel to agree to an FBI or other independent investigation,” Mahoney wrote in an opinion piece in The Hill.

“The Abu Akleh family says that Shireen Abu Akleh was killed. Israel denies it. Without a thorough and independent investigation by a credible agency like the FBI, we will never know and reporters, even those wearing ‘PRESS’ vests, will continue to be potential targets.”

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