Israeli riot police on Friday pushed and beat pallbearers at the funeral for slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, causing them to briefly drop the casket in a shocking start to a procession that turned into perhaps the largest display of Palestinian nationalism in Jerusalem in a generation.
The scenes of violence were likely to add to the sense of grief and outrage across the Arab world that has followed the death of Abu Akleh, who witnesses say was killed by Israeli troops 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 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 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 hero.
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, a Palestinian leader and scion of a prominent family, died in 2001.
Ahead of the burial, a large crowd gathered to escort her casket from an east Jerusalem hospital to a Catholic church in the nearby Old City. Many of the mourners held Palestinian flags, and the crowd began shouting, “We sacrifice our soul and blood for you, Shireen.”
Shortly after, Israel police moved in, pushing and clubbing mourners. As the helmeted riot police approached, they hit pallbearers, causing one man to lose control of the casket as it dropped toward the ground. Police ripped Palestinian flags out of people’s hands and fired stun grenades to disperse the crowd.
Abu Akleh’s brother, Tony, said the scenes “prove that Shireen’s reports and honest words … had a powerful impact.”
Al Jazeera correspondent Givara Budeiri said the police crackdown was like killing Abu Akleh again. “It seems her voice isn’t silent,” she said during a report by the broadcaster.
East Jerusalem, home to the city’s most important Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, was captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. It claims all of the city as its eternal capital and has annexed the eastern sector in a move that is not internationally recognized.
The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state. Israel routinely clamps down on any displays of support for Palestinian statehood. The conflicting claims to east Jerusalem often spill over into violence, helping fuel an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza militants 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 routinely clamps down on any displays of support for Palestinian statehood.
Police said the crowd at the hospital was chanting “nationalist incitement,” ignored calls to stop and threw stones at them. “The policemen were forced to act,” police said. They issued a video in which a commander outside the hospital warns the crowd that police will come in if they don’t stop their incitement and “nationalist songs.”
An Israeli official said the details of the funeral had been coordinated with the family ahead of time to ensure it would run smoothly, but that “masses began gathering around the hearse of Shireen Abu Akleh and chaos ensued,” preventing the procession from going along 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 casket 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 pallbearers emerged from the hospital carrying the casket.
Al Jazeera said in a statement that the police action “violates all international norms and rights.”
“Israeli occupation forces attacked those mourning the late Shireen Abu Akhleh after storming the French hospital in Jerusalem, where they severely beat the pallbearers,” it said. The network added that it remains committed to covering the news and will not be deterred.
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Israeli police later escorted the casket in a black van, ripping Palestinian flags off the vehicle as it made its way to the church.
“We die for Palestine to live!” crowds chanted. “Our beloved home!”
Later, they sang the Palestinian national anthem and chanted “Palestine, Palestine!” before her body was buried in a cemetery outside the Old City.
Her grave was decorated with a Palestinian flag and flowers. The Palestinian ambassador to the U.K., Husam Zomlot, and Al Jazeera’s bureau chief, Walid Al-Omari, placed flowers on the grave.
She was shot in the head during an Israeli military raid in the West Bank town of Jenin. But the circumstances of the shooting remain in dispute.
The Palestinians say army fire killed her, while the Israeli military said Friday that she was killed during an exchange with fire with Palestinian militants. It said it could not determine who was responsible for her death without a ballistic analysis.
Israel has 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 round.