JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli riot police on Friday pushed and beat pallbearers at the funeral for slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, causing them to briefly drop the casket in a shocking start to a procession that turned into perhaps the largest display of Palestinian nationalism in Jerusalem in a generation.
The scenes of violence were likely to add to the sense of grief and outrage across the Arab world that has followed the death of Abu Akleh, who witnesses say was killed by Israeli troops Wednesday during a raid in the occupied West Bank. They also illustrated the deep sensitivities over east Jerusalem -- which is claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians and has sparked repeated rounds of violence.
Abu Akleh, 51, was a household name across the Arab world, synonymous with Al Jazeera’s coverage of life under Israeli rule, which is well into its sixth decade with no end in sight. A 25-year veteran of the satellite channel, she was revered by Palestinians as a local hero.
Thousands of people, many waving Palestinian flags and chanting “Palestine! Palestine!” attended the funeral. It was believed to be the largest Palestinian funeral in Jerusalem since Faisal Husseini, a Palestinian leader and scion of a prominent family, died in 2001.
Ahead of the burial, a large crowd gathered to escort her casket from an east Jerusalem hospital to a Catholic church in the nearby Old City. Many of the mourners held Palestinian flags, and the crowd began shouting, “We sacrifice our soul and blood for you, Shireen.”
Shortly after, Israel police moved in, pushing and clubbing mourners. As the helmeted riot police approached, they hit pallbearers, causing one man to lose control of the casket as it dropped toward the ground. Police ripped Palestinian flags out of people’s hands and fired stun grenades to disperse the crowd.
Police said the crowd at the hospital was chanting “nationalist incitement,” ignored calls to stop and threw stones at them. “The policemen were forced to act,” police said. They issued a video in which a commander outside the hospital warns the crowd that police will come in if they don’t stop their incitement and “nationalist songs.”
Shortly before midnight, the Israeli police issued a second statement claiming that they had coordinated plans with the family for the casket to be placed in a vehicle, but that a “mob threatened the driver of the hearse and then proceeded to carry the coffin on an unplanned procession.” It said police intervened “so that the funeral could proceed as planned in accordance with the wishes of the family.”
The police claims could not be immediately verified. But earlier this week, Abu Akleh’s brother had said the original plans were to move the casket in a hearse from the hospital to the church, and that after the service, it would be carried through the streets to the cemetery.
Al Jazeera said in a statement that the police action “violates all international norms and rights.”
“Israeli occupation forces attacked those mourning the late Shireen Abu Akhleh after storming the French hospital in Jerusalem, where they severely beat the pallbearers,” it said. The network added that it remains committed to covering the news and will not be deterred.