The Israel Defense Forces have apologized for the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot at the back of her head last year.
The 51-year-old journalist was gunned down while covering an Israeli military operation in Jenin in the occupied West Bank.
It is the first time the IDF has apologized for the killing of the well-known correspondent, after conceding last year that there was a “high possibility” she was shot by an Israeli soldier.
The apology came from the IDF’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, in an interview with CNN’s Eleni Giokos on Connect the World on Thursday.
“I think it’s an opportunity for me to say here that we are very sorry of the death of Shireen Abu Akleh,” he said.
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“She was a journalist, a very established journalist. In Israel we value our democracy and in a democracy we see high value in journalism and in a free press. We want journalists to feel safe in Israel, especially in war time, even if they criticize us,” he said.
The apology comes days after The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a report that said it had found no accountability was taken by the Israeli military over its killings of at least 20 journalists over the past two decades.
The press advocacy group said it had documented at least 20 journalists killed by Israeli military fire since 2001, adding 18 of those killed were Palestinian. “No one has ever been charged or held accountable for these deaths,” it said in the press release.
The CPJ said its report – titled ‘Deadly Pattern’ – found a “routine sequence” that takes place when a journalist is killed at the hands of the IDF.
“Israeli officials discount evidence and witness claims, often appearing to clear soldiers for the killings while inquiries are still in progress,” the CPJ said, describing the IDF’s procedure for examining military killings of civilians such as journalists as a “black box,” with the results of any such probe kept confidential.
“When probes do take place, the Israeli military often takes months or years to investigate killings and families of the mostly Palestinian journalists have little recourse inside Israel to pursue justice,” the CPJ said.
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A CNN investigation in May last year 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 took aim at the journalist.
While the IDF admitted for the first time last September that there was a “high possibility” Abu Akleh was “accidentally” shot and killed by Israeli fire, its Military Advocate General’s Office said in a statement that it did not intend to pursue criminal charges or prosecutions of any of the soldiers involved.
Responding to the CPJ report earlier this month, the IDF said it “regrets any harm to civilians during operational activity and considers the protection of the freedom of the press and the professional work of journalists to be of great importance.”
“The IDF does not intentionally target noncombatants, and live fire in combat is used only after all other options have been exhausted,” it said in the statement.