A veteran Al Jazeera journalist was shot dead while covering an Israeli army raid on Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank early on Wednesday morning.
The exact circumstances surrounding the death of Shireen Abu Aqleh, a household name in the Arab world, remain unclear, with both Israelis and Palestinians claiming she was killed by the other side during a fierce gun battle in the restive northern area.
Video footage showed her slumped on the floor in a flak jacket marked ‘Press’ and a helmet. Another video showed her being hauled into a car with a head injury visible. She was rushed to hospital but declared dead soon after, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
Another Al-Jazeera journalist, Ali al-Samoudi, was also hit but remains in a stable condition.
Al-Jazeera Media Network said Abu Akleh, 51, was killed “in cold blood”, while she was conducting her “journalist duty”.
“In a blatant murder, violating international laws and norms, the Israeli Occupation Forces assassinated in cold blood Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Palestine, Sherine Abu Aqla, targeting her with live fire early this morning,” a statement from their Doha headquarters read.
But Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett quickly denied the allegations, saying she was shot by “armed Palestinians”.
“According to the information we’ve gathered, it appears likely that armed Palestinians – who were indiscriminately firing at the time – were responsible for the unfortunate death of the journalist,” Mr Bennett said in a statement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid offered a joint investigation, a suggestion that was rejected by the Palestinians due to fears that it would not be impartial.
The Israeli army confirmed it had conducted an operation early Wednesday in Jenin refugee camp, a stronghold of Palestinian armed groups in the northern West Bank home to 14,000 people.
It firmly denied, however, that it had deliberately targeted journalists.
“The (army) of course does not aim at journalists,” a military official told AFP. “There is an ongoing inquiry into this event. We offered and want to conduct a joint investigation with the Palestinians.”
Jenin has been at the centre of tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Territories over the last few months following a bout of deadly Palestinian terror attacks in central Israel against civilians.
In one attack, a 27-year-old man from a village near Jenin shot five people in Tel Aviv on 29 March, inciting fear in one of Israel’s major cities. While just last week, two men from Jenin, who were later caught after a days-long manhunt, killed three Israelis in an axe and knife attack in the ultra-orthodox town of Elad.
Israeli Defence Forces have conducted an increasing number of raids in the camp to arrest suspects, but they have been met with fierce resistance from armed Palestinians, often resulting in hours-long gunfights, and Palestinian casualties.
Jenin camp has long been a significant flashpoint in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. During the 2002 Palestinian Intifada, the area was devastated after a 10-day long battle when thousands of Israeli troops descended on the area. Some 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed.
Earlier this week, it was reported that the Israeli government was considering a military operation in Jenin or the Gaza Strip to combat the fresh wave of attacks.
A number of local Palestinian journalists were covering Wednesday’s violence and said they witnessed Abu Akleh being killed.
“We walked a few meters next to a factory [wall] and the shooting started, I said it was directed at us,” Mujahed Al-Sa’di, a freelance journalist who was at the scene, told J Media, a Palestinian network.
“Shireen was on the ground and Shatha [another journalist] was standing close to her amid the fire…None of us were able to help Shireen,” he said. “The occupation targeted her while wearing the helmet, she was shot right underneath the ear.”
Abu Akleh, who holds US citizenship, was a well-known senior television correspondent for Al-Jazeera Arabic – a household name who has covered Palestinian and Israeli affairs for two decades.
Her death was met with an outpouring of grief not just in the Palestinian Territories but also across the journalism world, with many describing Abu Akleh as an “icon”, and one of the finest Palestinian reporters.
The Head of the Palestinian Mission to the UK, Husam Zomlot, described Abu Akleh as a “prominent Palestinian journalist and a close friend.” He described her death as an “assassination”.
Human Rights Watch condemned Abu Akleh’s death, noting the systemic use of force against Palestinian journalists by Israeli forces.
Just last month, Reporters Without Borders said at least 144 Palestinian journalists had been wounded in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last four years. The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms said Abu Akleh was the 47th Palestinian journalist to be killed by Israeli forces since 2000.