Police rush procession, beat mourners at funeral for slain Al Jazeera journalist

Israeli police rushed the funeral procession of the late Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, beating mourners who raised Palestinian flags and nearly toppling her casket, as thousands of Palestinians arrived to grieve for the widely beloved correspondent on Friday.

Over ten thousand Palestinians paid their respects to Abu Akleh — killed during early Thursday a firefight between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in Jenin — during a long, tense funeral procession that wound across the city from Sheikh Jarrah to the Mount Zion cemetery.

The clashes at Saint Joseph’s Hospital erupted after Palestinians sought to carry Abu Akleh’s coffin on foot, waving several Palestinian flags, to the Old City. Police had designated that the procession would begin at the Jaffa Gate, less than two miles away.

Officers rushed the crowd, beating mourners in an apparent attempt to force them to take down the Palestinian flags. Police fired stun grenades in an attempt to disperse the crowd, including towards those carrying Abu Akleh’s casket, which almost toppled to the ground.

Police later claimed that mourners near the coffin had thrown rocks and objects at police during “violent riots.”

“Officers had to disperse and repel the rioters and make arrests in order to allow the funeral to take place,” Israeli police said in a statement, adding that six people had been detained.

Israeli police confront mourners as they carry the casket of slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral in east Jerusalem, Friday, May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Levin)

In footage from the scene, no such stone-throwing is evident before police rushed the crowd, although some Palestinians were later filmed throwing objects during the clashes.

“They brutally attacked us because we bore the Palestinian flag and we wanted to carry her on our shoulders [to the Old City],” said one Palestinian witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service reported that its medics had treated 33 Palestinians for injuries during the funeral; six were hospitalized.

Abu Akleh’s body was taken by van to the Greek Melkite Church near Jaffa Gate. In video released by Israel Police, officers made sure to tear Palestinian flags off of the van as well before escorting it to the ancient sanctuary.

Police also released a video of a commander warning the crowd that he would not allow the procession to go ahead if they kept singing “nationalist and inciting chants.”

Tensions ran high in the Old City, with thousands packing into the small alleyways and square near the church. Some Palestinians waved Palestinian flags and threw objects at police. Others chanted slogans calling to “let the olive branch fall and raise the rifle,” a reference to a famous speech by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Police and mourners are seen during the funeral procession of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem, on May 13, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP)

When Abu Akleh’s casket emerged, a rush of mourners surged forward to carry her to her final resting place at Mount Zion. Thousands joined the procession, crossing police roadblocks while officers watched. Palestinians threw flower petals along her casket’s path.

At the Melkite cemetery on Mount Zion, an Israeli police helicopter buzzed overhead, the beating of its rotors clashing with the resounding, tolling church bell announcing Abu Akleh’s death.

As the afternoon sun beat down in the cemetery, some mourners chanted slogans. But most stood silently, or wept, repeating to their friends in shock that they would never again see Abu Akleh.

Mourners gather during the burial of slain veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh at the Mount Zion Cemetery outside Jerusalem’s Old City on May 13, 2022. (HAZEM BADER/AFP)

“I was in total denial. I was glued to my Whatsapp as the news came in, trying to figure out what happened. It’s a human tragedy. It’s incomprehensible,” said Walid Nammour, a family friend.

When Abu Akleh’s body was laid to rest, the crowd burst into repeated rounds of applause — honoring her work in death, as in life.

“She was a Palestinian icon. She told our story to the whole world. She gave us everything she had to give,” said Arif Hammad, a resident of East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej of the dovish Meretz party accused police of “desecrating the memory and funeral.”

“It was the police violence and zeal to remove every Palestinian flag, contrary to the directive of the Minister of Internal Security, that led to an unnecessary flare-up,” he said.

“The police showed zero respect for the mourners and zero understanding of her role as someone who believed in maintaining order, not in violating it,” Frej said.

The police’s conduct was also lambasted by lawmakers in the US.

“This is awful to watch,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy. “I’m traveling in Connecticut today, but I have my team working to get answers about what happened here.”

“Agree,” Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen chimed in. “This simply adds trauma on top of a tragedy. Need immediate accountability for these attacks on people mourning the death of American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. And her killer must be brought to justice.”

“This is sickening. Violent racism, enabled by $3.8B in unconditional military US funds. For the Israeli apartheid government, Shireen’s life didn’t matter – and her dehumanization continues after death,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, calling on the State Department to issue a condemnation.

An impromptu funeral procession was already held for Abu Akleh in Jenin on Wednesday, as well as a state memorial in Ramallah led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the following day.

Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, a veteran Al Jazeera journalist who was shot and killed during clashes between IDF troops and Palestinian gunmen while covering an IDF raid in Jenin on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. (Courtesy)

Abu Akleh, 51, was one of the most beloved Palestinian journalists working in Arabic media. A longtime correspondent for the pan-Arab network Al Jazeera, many also saw her as a trailblazing model for women in a field dominated by men.

Her death touched a chord among the Palestinian public, which has been in a state of collective shock and mourning over the past two days. A constant presence in Palestinian homes since the Second Intifada, Abu Akleh was renowned for her reporting from the field.

Mourners carry slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh from her funeral in the Old City of Jerusalem to the cemetery, Friday, May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“She was one of us. She touched everyone. When she died, I couldn’t work, I just went home. Whenever I hear her name now, I cry,” said Amer, an East Jerusalem Palestinian, who declined to be identified by his last name.

“We came to know her during the Second Intifada, the Al-Aqsa Intifada, in those difficult days. She entered every Palestinian home,” he added.

Abu Akleh left for Jenin on Wednesday morning to cover clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen. She was shot in the head while wearing a press vest, with Israeli and Palestinian authorities providing different accounts of who killed her.

Palestinian witnesses and officials said Israeli soldiers killed Abu Akleh. Israeli officials at first said it was likely Palestinian gunmen had mistakenly shot her, but later said errant Israeli sniper fire could also have caused her death.

Mourners carry the casket of slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral in Jerusalem’s Old City, Friday, May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

In a video recorded by Al Jazeera to celebrate the channel’s 25th anniversary, Abu Akleh said she became a journalist “to be close to people.”

“It might not be easy to change reality. But at least I was able to bring their voice to the world,” Abu Akleh said.