JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli riot police pushed and beat pallbearers at the funeral of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on Friday, forcing them to briefly drop the coffin in a shocking start to a procession which has turned into perhaps the biggest display of Palestinian nationalism in Jerusalem in a generation.
The scenes of violence were likely to add to feelings of grief and outrage across the Arab world following the death of Abu Akleh, who witnesses said was killed by Israeli troops on Wednesday during a raid in the occupied West Bank. They also illustrated the deep sensitivities over East Jerusalem – which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians and has sparked repeated cycles of violence.
Abu Akleh, 51, was a household name across the Arab world, synonymous with Al Jazeera’s coverage of life under Israeli rule, which is well into its sixth decade with no end in sight. A 25-year veteran of the satellite channel, she was revered by Palestinians as a local heroine.
Thousands of people, many waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Palestine! Palestine!” attended the funeral. It was believed to be the largest Palestinian funeral in Jerusalem since the death of Faisal Husseini, Palestinian leader and scion of a prominent family, in 2001.
Ahead of the burial, a large crowd gathered to escort his coffin from a hospital in East Jerusalem to a Catholic church in the nearby Old City. Many mourners held Palestinian flags, and the crowd began to shout, “We sacrifice our souls and our blood for you, Shireen.
Shortly after, the Israeli police intervened, shoving and beating the mourners. As helmeted riot police approached, they struck pallbearers, causing one man to lose control of the coffin as it fell towards the ground. Police snatched Palestinian flags from people’s hands and fired stun grenades to disperse the crowd.
Abou Akleh’s brother, Tony, said the scenes “proved that Shireen’s honest reports and words…have a powerful impact”.
Al Jazeera correspondent Givara Budeiri said the police crackdown was like killing Abu Akleh again. “It seems that his voice is not silent,” she said during a report.
East Jerusalem, home to the city’s most important Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. It claims the entire city as its eternal capital and annexed the eastern sector in a movement that is not internationally recognised.
The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state. Israel systematically suppresses any demonstration of support for a Palestinian state. Conflicting claims to East Jerusalem often lead to violencehelping to fuel an 11-day war between Israel and militants in Gaza last year and, more recently, sparking weeks of unrest at the city’s most sensitive holy site.
Outside of prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque, Israel rarely allows large Palestinian gatherings in East Jerusalem and systematically cracks down on any show of support for a Palestinian state.
Police said the crowd at the hospital chanted “incitement to nationalism”, ignored calls to stop and threw rocks at them. “The officers were compelled to act,” police said. They released a video in which a commander outside the hospital warns the crowd that the police will come in if they don’t stop their incitement and “nationalist chants”.
Shortly before midnight, Israeli police released a second statement saying they had coordinated plans with the family to have the coffin placed in a vehicle, but that a “crowd threatened the driver of the hearse and then carried the coffin away.” coffin on an unexpected procession. He said the police intervened “so that the funeral could go ahead as planned in accordance with the wishes of the family”.
The police claims could not immediately be verified. But earlier this week, Abu Akleh’s brother said initial plans were to move the coffin in a hearse from the hospital to the church, and that after the service it would be carried through the streets to at the cemetery.
Al Jazeera said in a statement that the police action “violates all international norms and rights”.
“Israeli occupation forces attacked the mourners of the late Shireen Abu Akhleh after storming the French Hospital in Jerusalem, where they severely beat the porters,” he said. The network added that it remained committed to covering the news and would not be deterred.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the footage “deeply disturbing”.
The accent should be “marked in memory of a remarkable journalist who lost her life”, said PSAKI. “We regret the intrusion into what should have been a peaceful procession.”
At an event at the Rose Garden, US President Joe Biden was asked if he condemned the actions of the Israeli police at the funeral, and he replied: “I don’t know all the details, but I know it. should be investigated.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “was deeply disturbed by the clashes between Israeli security forces and the Palestinians gathered at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and by the behavior of some police officers present at the scene”, according to a statement from its deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq.
Israeli police then escorted the coffin in a black van, ripping Palestinian flags from the vehicle as it drove towards the church.
“We die so that Palestine lives!” the crowds chanted. “Our beloved home!”
Later, they sang the Palestinian national anthem and chanted “Palestine, Palestine!” before his body was buried in a cemetery outside the Old City.
His grave was decorated with a Palestinian flag and flowers. Palestinian Ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot and Al Jazeera Bureau Chief Walid Al-Omari laid flowers at the grave.
Salah Zuheika, a 70-year-old Palestinian, called Abu Akleh “the daughter of Jerusalem”, and said the huge crowd was a “reward” for her love of the city.
“We miss her already, but what happened today in the city will not be forgotten,” he said.
Abu Akleh was a member of the small Palestinian Christian community in the Holy Land. Palestinian Christians and Muslims marched side by side on Friday in a show of unity.
She was shot in the head during an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin. But the circumstances of the shooting remain controversial.
Palestinians say army fire killed her, while the Israeli army said on Friday she was killed in an exchange of fire with Palestinian militants. He said he couldn’t determine who was responsible for his death without a ballistics analysis.
“The conclusion of the interim investigation is that it is not possible to determine the source of the fire which hit and killed the journalist,” the army said.
Israel called for a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority and for it to hand over the bullet for forensic analysis to determine who fired the fatal bullet. The PA refused, saying it would conduct its own investigation and send the results to the International Criminal Court, which is already investigating possible Israeli war crimes.
Journalists who were with Abu Akleh, including one who was shot and wounded, said there were no clashes or militants in the immediate area. All wore protective gear that clearly identified them as reporters.
The AP and Al Jazeera, which have long had strained relations with Israel, have accused Israel of deliberately killing Abu Akleh. Israel denies the charges.
Rights groups say Israel rarely follows through on investigations into the killing of Palestinians by its security forces and imposes lenient sentences on the rare occasions when this is the case. This case, however, came under scrutiny as Abu Akleh was well known and also a US citizen.
Palestinians in Jenin and surrounding areas carried out deadly attacks in Israel in recent weeks, and Israel has launched near-daily arrest raids in the area, often triggering gunfights with militants.
Israeli troops pushed into Jenin again early Friday, sparking fresh fighting.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 13 Palestinians were injured. The Israeli army said the Palestinians opened fire when its forces intervened to arrest suspected militants. Police said a 47-year-old member of a special Israeli commando unit was killed.
Associated Press reporters Majdi Mohammed in Jenin, West Bank, Fares Akram in Hamilton, Ontario, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.