Two hours ahead of her casket’s arrival in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem on Friday, local residents had begun to gather to join the funeral procession for Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran Al Jazeera journalist killed early Wednesday in Jenin in the course of her work.
A few little cafes near the New Gate began closing down, their staff readying to join the stream of mourners, many clad fully or partly in black. A chalkboard outside one cafe, rather than today’s specials, hailed Shireen Abu Akleh, martyr of Palestine.
Posters of her image — some with Christian symbols, others superimposed on a scene showing the Dome of the Rock — were pasted on walls and shuttered storefronts.
The crowds gradually swelled into the hundreds, and more, in the alleys of the Christian Quarter and out into the open plaza just inside Jaffa Gate — with more men in their late teens, twenties and thirties now.
Some were wearing T-shirts showing Abu Akleh’s face and a map of Palestine — as in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Others were wearing the currently disturbingly popular T-shirts showing an M16 rifle; whoever pulled the trigger, the bullet that killed Abu Akleh reportedly may have been fired by an M16.
In blazing early afternoon heat, some officials from the Greek Melkite Church gave out bottles of water. A circular wreath appeared and was held up high. Then one in the shape of the cross.
At one point, a chant went up to the effect that the people of Muhammad do not kneel; not everybody knew, or cared in this context, that Abu Akleh was a Palestinian Christian.
Every now and then, many in the crowd chanted in support of Palestine, including “Let the olive branch fall and raise the rifle,” and Palestinian flags were raised. Every now and then, somebody was roughly pulled out of the crowd and, protesting and resisting, escorted away in the direction of the nearby police station — two or three times by undercover Israeli police officers, two or three more by uniformed police and Border Police. When a woman was dragged out, it was three female officers who surrounded her.
It was not clear why these half-dozen detentions were made, but some objects had been thrown and the police had also evidently been ordered to prevent the raising of the Palestinian flag during the procession. A little while earlier, as it turned out, police, in helmets and some with long batons, had directly rushed and hit mourners carrying the casket en route here, outside the Jerusalem hospital where it was beginning this stage of its final journey, almost leading to the casket being dropped. (The police said in a subsequent statement that it intervened at the hospital because rioters had seized the casket against the wishes of the family and prevented it from being loaded onto a hearse, as previously agreed, for that part of the funeral procession. Abu Akleh’s brother gave a different account to the BBC, however, saying that the family and mourners hoped to hold a “small procession” but were “bombarded” by officers as they left the hospital.)
At Jaffa Gate, the cops entering the crowds were not helmeted and those I saw chasing after mourners with Palestinian flags did not have batons drawn.
Perhaps 50 meters from the swelling crowd, Christ Church, Jerusalem, an Anglican community also located just inside Jaffa Gate, was simultaneously holding its annual Spring Fair, coinciding this year — as highlighted by a poster at the entrance — with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (70 years on the British throne).
As the teeming crowds awaited Abu Akleh’s casket across the street, here in this secluded compound, people had gathered, Union Jacks fluttering around them, to enjoy a quiet get-together to raise funds for needy locals. There was a bric-a-brac sale and second-hand clothes to buy; hot and cold drinks, cakes and other comestibles; and a bouncy castle and face-painting for the kids in the garden at the rear.
Genteel, laudable and a fair distance beyond surreal.
Pounding drums now signaled the belated arrival of the casket.
A bearded man in a designer T-shirt, holding onto the Samara restaurant sign at the corner of Greek Catholic Patriarchate Street, waved his arms to signal to the crowd to pump up the volume.
A red-bereted marching band emerged into view to considerable applause, then stopped for a few minutes.
Finally, there was a major rush of people into the plaza, followed by Abu Akleh’s casket. A path had somehow cleared to allow the band and then the casket through, with black-shirted Palestinian men keeping the crowds back.
Some fathers with kids on their shoulders pulled back from the rush for safety as the casket, lurching a little, passed by.
An ultra-Orthodox family, watching from the entrance to the Jaffa Gate suk, had decided it was time to walk away. So, too, a Jerusalem municipal street cleaner, who had arrived with broom and dustpan.
A small contingent of white-shirted, velvet-kippa-wearing teenage boys watched from the outskirts of the throng.
As the procession headed past, a bearded Greek cleric emerged unsteadily to take temporary refuge at the side, overcome by the heat and the moment.
Perhaps a dozen policemen made fresh efforts to confiscate Palestinian flags — three of them playing cat-and-mouse with one man before finally grabbing the offending article, then turning to a kid on his father’s shoulders who handed over his flag without a fuss.
Several thousand strong by now, the procession followed the shoulder-high casket out of Jaffa Gate and down the slope, south along the Old City walls, en route to the cemetery on Mount Zion.
More and larger Palestinian flags had now appeared, as the mourners passed the Israeli flags flying high along the paths outside the walls.
Watching the procession disappear down the hill, from the bridge between Jaffa Gate and the Mamilla outdoor shopping boulevard, an Italian tourist asked his guide, “Is it like this every day?”
Further along the Mamilla route, almost deserted a few hours before the start of Shabbat, an ultra-Orthodox musician was playing Bohemian Rhapsody on his Gibson SG guitar. “Too late, my time has come,” he sang.
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