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Cops said mob seized casket; brother gave different account

After international outcry, police open probe into violence at reporter’s funeral

Police say officers were ‘exposed to violence’ and ‘subsequently’ used force; images of Shireen Abu Akleh’s casket almost toppling drew widespread condemnation

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

In the face of growing international outrage, Israel Police announced Saturday that an investigation would be opened into the events surrounding the violence at the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

The announcement came in the wake of international condemnation after officers charged Palestinians who were holding and surrounding the casket at the funeral on Friday, and beat them with batons, nearly toppling the coffin. Police have claimed that the casket was seized by a mob, against the family’s wishes, outside Jerusalem’s St. Joseph’s Hospital, prompting the cops’ intervention. Abu Akleh’s brother, however, said the family and mourners had hoped to hold a “smooth procession” but were “bombarded” by officers as they left the hospital.

In a statement Saturday, police said that they had planned for a “calm and dignified” funeral for the reporter, but “hundreds of rioters tried to sabotage the ceremony and harm the police.”

The English-language statement said that officers were “exposed to violence” and “subsequently” used force.

“The Israel Police will be looking into the events that ensued during the funeral,” the statement read. “The Israel Police supports its police officers, but as a professional organization that seeks to learn and improve, it will also draw lessons from the incident.”

Police said the investigation was ordered by Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, along with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, and that the results will be presented to officials in the coming days.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L) and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem, on May 1, 2022 (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the announcement came after Barlev, whose ministry oversees policing, pushed for the investigation to be opened.

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 the long, tense funeral procession that wound across the city from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to the Mount Zion cemetery on Friday.

However, images of police beating mourners at the start of the funeral elicited widespread shock and condemnation.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called the images “deeply disturbing,” and US President Joe Biden said the incident “has to be investigated.” The European Union said it was “appalled.”

Israeli police said Friday that officers intervened in the funeral after “rioters” seized her coffin at the hospital, against her family’s wishes.

Palestinian mourners wave national flags as they carry the casket of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, during her funeral procession outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 13, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

The clashes erupted at Saint Joseph’s Hospital 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.

Police instructed the crowd to return the coffin to the hearse, “but the mob refused,” police said. “Police intervened to disperse the mob and prevent them from taking the coffin, so that the funeral could proceed as planned in accordance with the wishes of the family.”

The crowd seized the coffin, leading the Palestinians gathered in the hospital square to cheer, carrying her casket forward.

After a brief standoff, police officers rushed the crowd, beating mourners and firing stun grenades. Abu Akleh’s casket almost toppled to the ground during the skirmish.

Shireen Abu Akleh’s casket almost hits the ground outside Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Jerusalem, May 13, 2022 (Screenshot / Washington Post)

Abu Akleh’s body was then taken by van, surrounded by a police escort, to the Greek Melkite Church near Jaffa Gate.

Officers tore Palestinian flags off of the van as well before escorting it to the ancient sanctuary, according to footage.

Israel Police later said that six people had been detained after riots “that had included stone-throwing.”

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 in to disperse the crowd.

The police’s version of events was consistent with some reports from the funeral, although questions were asked as to why they hadn’t exercised restraint. And earlier this week, Abu Akleh’s brother said the plan was to move the casket in a hearse from the hospital to the church. After the service, it would be carried through the streets to the cemetery, he said.

People carry the coffin of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem, on May 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, in an interview with the BBC on Friday, Abu Akleh’s brother appeared to dispute the Israel Police version of events, saying that the family and mourners hoped to hold a “smooth 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 smooth 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 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,” he said.

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 killing 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.

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)

Born in Jerusalem, Abu Akleh spent time in the United States as a child and held US citizenship along with her Jerusalem residency card.

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 Authority President Mahmoud Abbas charged that Israel “executed” her. 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.

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 persuading the Palestinian Authority to cooperate.

On Saturday, the Palestinian Authority said that while international bodies could “participate” in the investigation, Israel would not be permitted to join the probe into Abu Akleh’s death.

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