Top Catholic clergyman condemns police violence at Al Jazeera reporter’s funeral

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa says incident was a ‘disproportionate use of force’ and ‘severe violation’ of fundamental human right of freedom of religion

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa speaks at Saint Joseph Hospital in Jerusalem on May 16, 2022.  (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa speaks at Saint Joseph Hospital in Jerusalem on May 16, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The top Catholic clergyman in Israel on Monday condemned the police beating of mourners carrying the casket of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral on Friday, accusing the authorities of human rights violations and disrespectful treatment of the Catholic Church.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa told reporters at St. Joseph Hospital in Jerusalem that Friday’s incident was a “disproportionate use of force” against the Palestinian flag-waving crowd of thousands proceeding from the hospital to a nearby Catholic church in Jerusalem’s Old City.

In the aftermath, Israeli police claimed they had acted against a mob of “300 rioters” who had violently seized the coffin, attacked cops, and sought to march on foot to the Old City, in violation of the family’s wishes.

The police actions, Pizzaballa told reporters, were “a severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion, which must be observed also in a public space.”

He spoke as the leaders and clergy of other Christian churches sat nearby.

After an international uproar over the funeral violence, Israeli police launched an investigation into the conduct of the officers who attacked the mourners, causing the pallbearers to nearly drop her coffin.

Violence erupts between Israeli security forces and Palestinian mourners carrying the casket of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh out of a hospital, before being transported to a church and then her resting place, in Jerusalem, on May 13, 2022. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Israel and the Palestinians are locked in a war of narratives over Abu Akleh’s killing. The reporter, a Palestinian-American, a Catholic and a 25-year veteran of the satellite channel Al-Jazeera, was shot Wednesday while covering clashes between the IDF and armed Palestinians during an Israeli military raid in Jenin.

Palestinian officials and witnesses, including journalists who were with her, say she was killed by army fire. The military, after initially saying Palestinian gunmen might have been responsible, later backtracked and now says she may have been hit by errant Israeli fire, but a conclusive ruling is not yet possible.

Israel has called for a joint investigation with the Palestinians, saying the bullet must be analyzed by ballistics experts to reach firm conclusions. Palestinian officials have refused, saying they don’t trust Israel. After first saying they would accept an outside partner, the Palestinians said late Sunday that they would handle the investigation alone and deliver results very soon.

“We also refused to have an international investigation because we trust our capabilities as a security institution,” PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced. “We will not hand over any of the evidence to anyone because we know that these people are able to falsify the facts.” He stood with Abu Akleh’s brother, Anton Abu Akleh, and Al Jazeera’s local bureau chief, Walid Al-Omari.

A mural of slain of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is on display, in Gaza City, Sunday, May 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

With the two sides at loggerheads over the Abu Akleh probe, several research and human rights groups have launched their own investigations.

Over the weekend, Bellingcat, a Dutch-based international consortium of researchers, published an analysis of video and audio evidence gathered on social media. The material came from both Palestinian and Israeli military sources, and the analysis looked at such factors as time stamps, the locations of the videos, shadows and a forensic audio analysis of gunshots.

The group found that while gunmen and Israeli soldiers were both in the area, the evidence supported witness accounts that Israeli fire killed Abu Akleh.

“Based on what we were able to review, the IDF were in the closest position and had the clearest line of sight to Abu Akleh,” said Giancarlo Fiorella, the lead researcher of the analysis.

Fiorella acknowledged that the analysis cannot be 100% certain without such evidence as the bullet, weapons used by the army and GPS locations of Israeli forces. But he said the emergence of additional evidence typically bolsters preliminary conclusions and almost never overturns them.

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