Scenes of Israeli police rushing participants in the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, using force against Palestinians who were carrying her casket outside a Jerusalem hospital and nearly toppling it, drew widespread condemnation on Friday, with the White House saying it was “deeply disturbing,” while the European Union said it was “appalled.”
The police said in a subsequent statement that it intervened because rioters took her casket at the hospital against her family’s wishes, and prevented it from being loaded onto a hearse, as previously agreed, for that part of the funeral procession.
Over ten thousand Palestinians paid their respects to Abu Akleh — killed during a firefight early Wednesday between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in Jenin — during a long, tense funeral procession that wound across the city from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood 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.
A crowd of Palestinians at the hospital seized Abu Akleh’s casket in an attempt to begin the impromptu march. Abu Akleh’s brother Antoine sought to calm the crowd and have them return his sister’s body to the hearse that would take her to the Old City, according to The Washington Post.
After a standoff, officers rushed the crowd, beating mourners and firing stun grenades into the crowd, including towards those carrying Abu Akleh’s casket, which almost toppled to the ground.
Police later said mourners near the coffin had thrown rocks and objects at officers during “violent riots,” and that the marchers had seized the coffin against the wishes of Abu Akleh’s family, which officers had tried to prevent.
“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.
Video released by Israel Police showed at least one Palestinian hurled an object at Israeli officers before the dispersal began. The footage then showed Palestinians throwing objects at police after officers had moved to disperse the crowd.
Israeli police later escorted the casket in a black van, ripping Palestinian flags off the vehicle as it made its way to the church.
However, in an interview with the BBC on Friday, Abu Akleh’s brother Tony appeared to deny the Israel Police version of events, saying that the family and mourners hoped to hold a “small procession” but were “bombarded” by officers as they left the hospital. He did not clarify if the planned procession was on foot or by car.
“It is really very sad to see this happening at a funeral. We were hoping to have a small procession from the hospital to the church and then to the cemetery,” he said. “But unfortunately the minute we started walking out of the hospital we were bombarded by several Israeli police, and just for nothing. We were just leaving the hospital for the church. We were shocked to see them just starting beating people, throwing stun grenades, tear gas. All this — we cannot explain it. This happened without any explanation.”
The slain journalist’s brother also said that ahead of the funeral, Israeli authorities had asked them to provide the exact number of mourners expected, as well as their identities.
“They wanted to know the exact numbers, but we couldn’t provide [them]. They wanted to know who will participate, how many people we expected to participate,” he said. “They were clearly informed that we are not in a position to know the numbers. This funeral was for all the Palestinian people, not only for Shireen’s family or friends. They are paying respects for what she did for Palestine, for her reports over a period of 25 years.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the images “deeply disturbing.”
The focus should be “marking the memory of a remarkable journalist who lost her life,” Psaki told reporters. “We regret the intrusion into what should have been a peaceful procession.”
“We have urged respect for the funeral procession, the mourners and the family at this sensitive time,” Psaki said.
Asked if she condemned the Israeli forces’ actions, she responded: “I think when we said they were disturbing, we obviously were not justifying them.”
Biden officials also reached out privately to their Israeli counterparts to express their dismay over the police’s conduct during the funeral, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.
US President Joe Biden also called for an investigation.
Speaking to reporters after delivering remarks on the American Rescue Plan, he was asked: Do you condemn the police force for their actions at the funeral of a Palestinian-American journalist?
“I don’t know all the details, but I know it has to be investigated. I don’t know all the details,” he replied.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We were deeply troubled to see the images of Israeli police intruding into her funeral procession. Every family deserves to be able to lay their loved ones to rest in a dignified and unimpeded manner.”
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield also condemned the incident.
“Deeply distressed by the images from Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral procession. The tragedy of her killing should be handled with the utmost respect, sobriety, and care.”
The police’s conduct was also lambasted by several 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.”
Israeli police confront mourners as they carry the coffin of slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral in Jerusalem, Friday, May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
“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.
Criticism of Israeli police was also voiced by Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren along with Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar, Sara Jacobs and Andy Levin.
The European Union also condemned the incident, saying it was “appalled.”
“The EU condemns the disproportionate use of force and the disrespectful behavior by the Israeli police against the participants of the mourning procession,” an EU statement said.
“Allowing for a peaceful farewell and letting mourners grieve in peace without harassment and humiliation, is the minimal human respect,” it said.
The French consulate general said “police violence” at the hospital had been “deeply shocking.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “was deeply disturbed by the confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinians gathered at St. Joseph Hospital, and the behavior of some police present at the scene,” a spokesperson said
UN Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland tweeted, “there is no place for such acts at a mournful event.”
The UN Security Council on Friday night “condemned” Abu Akleh’s death, without mentioning the funeral, and called for “an immediate, thorough, transparent, and fair and impartial investigation” into the killing.
In Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based, the foreign ministry said: “The occupation forces were not content with killing Shireen… they also terrorized those who accompanied her to her last resting place.”
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.
In this undated photo provided by Al Jazeera Media Network, Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist for Al Jazeera network, stands next to a TV camera with the Old City of Jerusalem in the background. (Al Jazeera Media Network via AP)
This case has drawn heavy scrutiny because Abu Akleh was so well-known in the region and also a US citizen.
The White House has called for an “immediate and thorough” probe into Abu Akleh’s death.
Born in Jerusalem, Abu Akleh spent time in the United States as a child and held US citizenship along with her Jerusalem residency card.
Israel is insisting it cannot determine who shot her without examining the bullet removed from her neck, Channel 12 reported Friday, adding that Israel has asked the US for assistance in the case in persuading the Palestinian Authority to cooperate.
The Israel Defense forces said earlier Friday that the Palestinians had rejected offers to be present and take part in the inquiry alongside an American representative.
* Note: This article was updated and amended with additional details of the events at Saint Joseph’s Hospital.