This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
On Monday night, during a long and large funeral procession in and outside Jerusalem’s Old City for a 21-year-old Palestinian, Walid a-Sharif, Israeli police came under sustained violent attack.
A-Sharif had died after being injured in contested circumstances during clashes with Israeli police on the Temple Mount last month. The Palestinians claim he was hit by a sponge-tipped bullet; police said he fell and hit his head while throwing rocks at them outside Al-Aqsa Mosque; Hadassah hospital, which tried to save his life, said he had not been hit by live ammunition. After his death, a-Sharif was claimed by Hamas as a member.
In the course of a funeral march joined by thousands, stones, bottles and fireworks were hurled at the cops, as were slabs and various other heavy objects, some from high up in buildings overlooking the funeral procession. Police responded with riot control and crowd dispersal methods, including the use of clubs, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. At the height of the violence, parts of East Jerusalem resembled a war zone. Several people — cops and Palestinians — were injured. Moshe Nussbaum, a veteran Israeli TV police reporter who has covered innumerable similar incidents, marveled on Channel 12’s prime time news that nobody had been killed.
Assessing one more in an endless stream of challenging operations, the police force might chalk up its handling of the night’s events as a relative success. Bitter Palestinian nationalist violence in the heart of Israel’s sovereign capital, pumped up by Hamas and other Palestinian extremists hostile to Israel’s very existence, was faced down without loss of life and with order eventually restored to the streets.
Understaffed and underfunded, Israel’s police routinely grapple with an array of extraordinary challenges such as Monday night’s funeral march. Along with the rest of the security establishment in recent weeks, the cops have been battling a surge in deadly terrorism — desperately trying to prevent the attacks, to tackle the perpetrators while the attacks are underway, to locate the killers when they’ve fled.
They’re on constant alert for a repeat of last May’s intra-Israel Arab-Jewish violence in our so-called mixed cities. They’re called into action to prevent Jewish extremists — now led by the far-right Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir — adding fuel to the fire. They’re belatedly attempting to crack down on organized crime, “honor killings” and other murderous horrors in the Arab sector.
On Wednesday and Thursday they’ve been deployed in their thousands working to prevent a repeat of last year’s devastating crowd crush at the Mount Meron Lag B’Omer festivities, where 45 people were killed in Israel’s worst-ever civilian disaster.
And that’s only a small part of their responsibilities and obligations.
All of which is essential to say before turning to Friday’s funeral in Jerusalem of the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh — an unmitigated fiasco for police, and by extension, Israel. The Israeli news cycle has quickly moved on — to the IAF’s drills for an Iran strike, new coalition twists, Meron, the Netanyahu trial — but the global and regional impact will not fade quickly.
An experienced reporter, familiar and trusted by millions upon millions of viewers in this region and beyond, Abu Akleh was shot dead in immensely contested circumstances last Wednesday. She was covering an IDF operation — part of the army’s escalated counterterrorist activities in the hotbed Jenin area — that turned into a massive firefight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen.
In a case cynically misrepresented by Hamas (of course) and the Palestinian Authority (dismally but unsurprisingly) as a deliberate Israeli killing, Abu Akleh was apparently caught fatally in the crossfire — possibly by an Israeli bullet that missed the Palestinian gunman it was aimed at, and possibly too by errant Palestinian gunfire. We await a credibly definitive answer; we may have to wait some time.
Israel’s official public handling of the tragedy was not particularly impressive. It failed to explain what the IDF was doing in Jenin in the first place; its leaders from the prime minister on down asserted that Abu Akleh was likely killed by Palestinian fire when, as the IDF chief Aviv Kohavi subsequently explained, there was no way yet of knowing whose bullet killed her. But Israel promised a full investigation, reached out to (and was rebuffed by) the Palestinians, and Kohavi found the right tone and vocabulary to express regret at her death.
Her funeral was another matter altogether. The orders given to the police, and the way in which they were carried out, reflected a failure to internalize the significance of the death of a prominent, even iconic, journalist killed in hugely contested circumstances, now being laid to rest in Jerusalem.
Attacking mourners outside the Jerusalem hospital where her casket was setting off en route to the Old City and thence the Mount Zion cemetery, all but toppling the casket to the ground in the process, even marauding, batons drawn, into St. Joseph’s hospital itself, the cops showed spectacular heavy-handedness and insensitivity at a landmark event in our capital city — and wound up doing the absolute opposite of ensuring law and order.
With apparent reluctance, the police force is now investigating its handling of the incident. In a series of official statements, it has thus far claimed that it was compelled to intervene outside the hospital “to disperse the mob” of “300 rioters” who had seized the casket and were planning to walk it to the Old City rather than have it transported in a hearse, against the agreements reached by police with Abu Akleh’s family. Anton Abu Akleh, Shireen’s older brother, told The Times of Israel this claim was illogical and untrue: “Everyone who was there was there to mourn Shireen. What’s this mob they’re talking about? And even if there were one or two, how many police do you need to deal with it?”
Officers went into the hospital itself, the police said, because there were hundreds of “lawbreakers” inside who were throwing stones, bottles and other objects at them.
Footage and witnesses from the funeral also indicate that the police sought throughout the protracted funeral to prevent mourners raising the Palestinian flag — and that this effort fueled repeated confrontations.
The dismal saga raises innumerable questions about the police preparation for, and handling of, what was manifestly going to be a globally resonant event — one for which international media outlets had set up live and protracted coverage.
Among them: Why did police apparently believe that Abu Akleh’s family would be capable of ensuring that the funeral played out as the police hoped it would? Why did officers enter the hospital grounds at all? If mourners wanted to carry the coffin for longer distances than anticipated, so what? Is it the case, as reported by the Haaretz daily, that police preparations for the event were overseen by the Jerusalem District police chief, Doron Turgeman… from Germany where he was on an official visit?
Also, did Turgeman give long-distance orders that Palestinian flags be confiscated? And if so, why?
It is not illegal to raise the Palestinian flag in Israel; rather, police are generally told to intervene only where the flying of the Palestinian flag is causing public disorder, to prevent an escalation. In this case, it would seem, it was the very police intervention that escalated the public disorder.
The policing of Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral was plainly intended to underline Israeli sovereignty in and around Jerusalem’s Old City, and clamp down on displays of Palestinian nationalism. Instead, it utterly contradicted Israel’s strategic interest in acting, and being seen to act, as the responsible, temperate authority in our bitterly contested capital, and bolstered international empathy for Palestinian claims and complaints here. And however untenably eager officers were to carry out their orders on the day, it is the top echelons, and their political overseers, who need to answer for that.
This was not the funeral of a Hamas-linked rioter. It was the ultrasensitive burial of a journalist killed in intensely controversial circumstances in the course of her work, being laid to rest in the city where she was born — a disputed city, in which Israel has taken on historic rights and solemn responsibilities.
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