Israeli police said late Friday that officers intervened in the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem earlier in the day after “rioters” seized her coffin at the hospital, against her family’s wishes.
Officers charged Palestinians who were holding and surrounding the casket, and beat them with batons, nearly toppling the coffin. Images of the incident sparked global shock and condemnation.
“About 300 rioters arrived at Saint Joseph hospital in Jerusalem and prevented the family members from loading the coffin onto the hearse,” police said in a statement late Friday night.
Law enforcement had planned and coordinated the funeral procession with Abu Akleh’s family ahead of time, the English-language statement said.
“The mob threatened the driver of the hearse and then proceeded to carry the coffin on an unplanned procession,” the statement said. “This went against the wishes of the Abu Akleh family and the security coordination.”
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 statement said.
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.
“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.”
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.
The police’s version of events was consistent with some reports from the funeral, 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.
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.
A group of Palestinians at the hospital seized Abu Akleh’s casket in an attempt to begin the impromptu march, beating the hearse that would take her to the Old City with sticks, according to The Washington Post. Abu Akleh’s brother reportedly sought to calm the crowd and have them return his sister’s body to the hearse.
“For God’s sake, let us put her in the car and finish the day,” he was quoted as saying.
Follow up: Video: Dozens of ISF beating elements seen beating several Palestinians carrying the body of Shireen Abu Aqla; ISF elements kidnapped the body and are currently heading toward Jaffa Gate pic.twitter.com/RaEJE98t4k
— Local Focus – Security Alerts (@LocalFocus1) May 13, 2022
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.
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 to disperse the crowd.
Rioters hiding near and under the coffin after throwing stones and other objects at Israel Police officers in Jerusalem pic.twitter.com/SpnxM0uLre
— Israel Police (@israelpolice) May 13, 2022
“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.
Abu Akleh’s body was 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.
Images of police beating mourners at 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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.