Abu Akleh, a correspondent for the Al Jazeera news channel, was shot dead on Wednesday while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank. The network and Palestinian authorities said she was shot dead by Israeli troops. Israel said she was caught in the crossfire. After saying Palestinian gunmen were most likely responsible, the army said Thursday it was looking into the possibility that one of its soldiers fired the shot.
Friday’s funeral marked the second day of memorial events honoring Abu Akleh, who has reported for Al Jazeera for more than two decades. A ceremony Thursday in the West Bank city of Ramallah drew a crowd of several thousand mourners, many of whom sobbed and rushed to touch the coffin of a figure who had become familiar in living rooms across the Arab world during his long tenure on the air.
For Palestinian journalists, the death of a colleague strikes close to home
His funeral itinerary had been agreed upon by police and Abu Akleh’s family, according to media reports, and was to include transporting his body by hearse to a Catholic church in Jerusalem’s Old City and then a procession to the Christian cemetery where she was to be buried in a family plot.
At noon, a crowd of several hundred people formed at the entrance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem, where Abu Akleh’s body had lain overnight. In the minutes before the motorcade left the hospital, several dozen Muslim men lined up for Friday prayers, kneeling in the parking lot. Behind them, two mourners held up large floral crosses. Then the crowd gathered, with Palestinian flags waving.
“God is the greatest”, chanted some in Arabic. “From Jerusalem to Jenin, God bless your soul, Shireen.”
But a group of men in the crowd stopped a hearse from backing up to the hospital door, saying they intended to carry his body on their shoulders. The stalemate eventually prompted Akleh’s brother, seated on a man’s shoulders, to plead with the crowd to let the hearse pass. “For God’s sake, let’s put her in the car and end the day,” he said.
“On the shoulder, on the shoulder!” people were singing and beating the hearse with sticks until it moved away a second time. The crowd cheered as the men finally dragged the coffin over their shoulders, followed by a stretcher wearing the reporter’s blue body armor.
But Israeli police at the hospital gate refused to let the crowd through, and within minutes a squad in riot gear advanced, setting off stun grenades and pushing mourners back with batons. People scattered amid a cascade of bottles and thrown rocks. At one point, Abu Akleh’s coffin tipped to the ground, but the pallbearers managed to hold it aloft.
With a police station in the compound, the hearse raced from the hospital compound under heavy Israeli guard to the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Israeli security agencies said they were prepared for the possibility of clashes on Friday, especially in areas around the Old City that have been the scene of fighting between police and Palestinian protesters in recent weeks. Officers had been asked to “minimize friction” with people attending the funeral, according to local media.
This strategy appeared to come to fruition later in the afternoon, after the church service, when thousands of people joined a procession as it carried Abu Akleh’s coffin to Mount Zion cemetery. They waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Jerusalem is Arab”.
“I’ve known her all my life” on television, said Aya Odeh, who made the trip from Nablus in the West Bank. “I feel like I lost my mother.”
Rima Baqleh, a sociologist from Jerusalem who attended the same church as Abu Akleh, said she felt compelled to come.
“It’s the least I can do, attend the funeral of this iconic woman who changed the history of Palestine,” she said. “For the first time, she managed to raise the Palestinian flag in front of thousands of Palestinians in [Jerusalem’s] Jaffa Gate.
During a White House briefing on Friday, press secretary Jen Psaki noted the “deeply disturbing images” of the beatings. “We regret the intrusion into what should have been a peaceful procession,” she said, and “urged respect” for the mourners and family.
Abu Akleh’s murder has emerged as the latest flashpoint in the chronic tension between Israel and the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Two reporters who were with Abu Akleh and several other witnesses told the Washington Post that no firefights took place near where she was killed.
The stories of five slain journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Israel has pushed Palestinian authorities to share forensic and ballistics evidence with Israeli investigators, a request Palestinian officials have so far flatly rejected. International diplomats would seek to negotiate a joint or shared investigation, possibly including experts from a neutral third country.
A Palestinian forensic expert reported on Wednesday that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was not fired at close range but it was not yet possible to determine whether it came from an Israeli weapon.
Palestinian officials on Thursday refused to hand the ball over to Israeli analysis. The IDF said it had secured soldiers’ weapons at the scene in case it was allowed access to the bullet for ballistics comparison.
Eventually, the crowd that escorted Abu Akleh’s coffin along the Ottoman-era walls spilled into the cemetery, weaving between the headstones to see his coffin reach its resting place. An Israeli helicopter hovered overhead, but a day that started in chaos largely ended in peace.