Israeli riot police on Friday pushed and beat the coffin bearers at the funeral of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, briefly dropping their coffin in a shocking start to a procession that has morphed into perhaps the largest demonstration of Palestinian nationalism in Jerusalem in one generation.
The scenes of violence are likely to add to the sense of pain and outrage across the Arab world that followed the death of Abu Akleh, who according to witnesses was killed by Israeli troops on Wednesday during a raid in the occupied West Bank. They also illustrated the deep sensitivity about East Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians and has sparked repeated rounds 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 has now entered 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 Faisal Husseini, Palestinian leader and scion of an important family, died in 2001.
Before the burial, a large crowd gathered to escort his coffin from an East Jerusalem hospital to a Catholic church in the nearby Old City. Many of the mourners held Palestinian flags and the crowd started shouting, “We sacrifice our soul and blood for you, Shireen.”
Soon after, the Israeli police relocated, pushing and beating the mourners. When helmeted riot police approached, they hit the coffin bearers, causing a man to lose control of the coffin as he fell to the ground. Police snatched Palestinian flags from people’s hands and fired stun grenades to disperse the crowd.
Abu Akleh’s brother Tony said the scenes “prove that Shireen’s honest tales and words … have had a strong 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 service of the broadcaster.
East Jerusalem, seat of the most important Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites of the city, conquered by Israel in 1967 in the Middle East. It claims the whole city as its eternal capital and has annexed the eastern sector in a move not recognized internationally.
Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state. Israel regularly represses any demonstration of support for Palestinian statehood. Conflicting claims about East Jerusalem often result in violence, helping to fuel an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza militants last year and, more recently, sparking weeks of unrest in 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 regularly represses any demonstrations of support for the Palestinian state.
Police said the crowd at the hospital sang “nationalist cheers”, ignored calls to stop and threw stones at them. “The policemen were forced 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 cheering and “nationalist songs”.
An Israeli official said the details of the funeral had been coordinated with the family in advance to ensure it ran smoothly, but that “the masses began to gather around Shireen Abu Akleh’s hearse and chaos ensued.” , preventing the procession from following its intended route. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Earlier this week, Abu Akleh’s brother said the original arrangement was 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 the cemetery. It was not immediately clear why those plans had changed and the coffin bearers emerged from the hospital carrying the coffin.
Al Jazeera said in a statement that the police action “violates all international norms and rights”.
“The Israeli occupation forces attacked those who mourned the deceased Shireen Abu Akhleh after storming the French hospital in Jerusalem, where they severely beat the coffin bearers,” the network said, adding that it remains committed to covering the news and will not be discouraged.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the images “deeply disturbing”.
Israeli police then escorted the coffin into a black van, ripping Palestinian flags from the vehicle as it headed for the church.
“We die for Palestine to live!” the crowd sang. “Our beloved home!”
Later, they sang the Palestinian national anthem and sang “Palestine, Palestine!” before his body was buried in a cemetery outside the Old City.
His grave was decorated with a Palestinian flag and flowers. The Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Husam Zomlot, and the head of the Al Jazeera office, Walid Al-Omari, placed flowers on the grave.
Shireen 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 demonstration 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 during a fire exchange with Palestinian militants. She said she couldn’t determine who was responsible for her death without a ballistic analysis.
“The conclusion of the interim investigation is that it is not possible to determine the source of the fire that struck and killed the reporter,” the military said.
Israel has called for a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority and for the bullet to be handed over to forensic analysis to determine who fired the fatal shot. The Palestinian Authority refused, saying it will conduct its own investigation and send the findings to the International Criminal Court, which is already investigating possible Israeli war crimes.
Reporters 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 Palestinian Authority and Al Jazeera, who have long had a strained relationship with Israel, have accused Israel of deliberately killing Abu Akleh. Israel denies the allegations.
Human rights groups say Israel rarely follows investigations into the killing of Palestinians by its security forces and inflicts lenient punishment on the rare occasions it does. This case, however, was the subject of close scrutiny because Abu Akleh was known and also a US citizen.
Palestinians in and around Jenin have carried out deadly attacks on Israel in recent weeks, and Israel has launched near-daily raids of arrests in the area, often triggering gunfights with militants.
Israeli troops pushed back into Jenin early Friday, sparking new fighting.
The Palestinian health ministry said 13 Palestinians were injured. The Israeli military said the Palestinians opened fire when its forces entered to arrest suspected militants. Police said a 47-year-old member of an Israeli special command unit was killed.