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Massive crowds, police beatings as journalist’s funeral is held in Jerusalem

Israeli police confronted mourners as they carried the casket of slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral in east Jerusalem on May 13, 2022.Maya Levin/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — The funeral of slain Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh began in chaos Friday, as Israeli police set off stun grenades and beat mourners with batons, after a group of them tried to carry her coffin on their shoulders rather than let it be loaded in a hearse.

By day’s end, the crowds had swelled into the largest Palestinian gathering in Jerusalem in recent memory. Mourners called it a stunning display of national unity, prompted by the death of a journalist who was being hailed as an icon, with a face familiar across the Arab world, and was the latest victim, they said, of Israel’s decades-long occupation.

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Abu Akleh, a correspondent for the Al Jazeera news channel, was shot dead Wednesday while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank. The network and Palestinian authorities said she was shot by Israeli troops. Israel has said she was caught in crossfire. After saying Palestinian gunmen were most likely responsible, the military said Thursday that it was examining the possibility that one of its soldiers fired the shot.

Friday’s funeral marked the second day of memorial events honoring Abu Akleh, who reported for Al Jazeera for more than two decades. A Thursday ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah attracted a crowd of several thousand mourners, many of whom sobbed and rushed to touch the coffin of a figure who had grown familiar in living rooms across the Arab world during her long tenure on the air.

Her funeral route had been agreed upon by police and Abu Akleh’s family, according to media reports, and was to include the carrying of her 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.

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By noon, a crowd of several hundred formed at the entrance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem, where Abu Akleh’s body had rested overnight. In the minutes before the procession was due to leave 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 greatest,” some chanted in Arabic. “From Jerusalem to Jenin, God bless your soul, Shireen.”

But a group of men in the crowd prevented a hearse from backing up to the hospital door, saying they were intent on carrying her body on their shoulders. The standoff eventually prompted Akleh’s brother, sitting on a man’s shoulders, to beseech the crowd to let the hearse through. “For God’s sake, let us put her in the car and finish the day,” he said.

“On the shoulder, on the shoulder!” people chanted, and beat the hearse with sticks until it pulled away for a second time. The crowd cheered when the men eventually dragged the coffin out on their shoulders, followed by a stretcher carrying the journalist’s blue bullet-resistant vest.

But Israeli police at the hospital gate refused to let the crowd through and, within minutes, a squad in riot gear pushed forward, setting off stun grenades and beating back the mourners with truncheons. People scattered amid a cascade of thrown bottles and rocks. At one point, Abu Akleh’s coffin lurched toward the ground, but the pallbearers managed to keep it aloft.

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With police standing post in the compound, the hearse sped 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 had said they were braced for the possibility of clashes 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 advised to “minimize friction” with funeral-goers, according to local media reports.

That strategy seemed to kick in later in the afternoon, after the church service, when thousands joined a procession as it carried Abu Akleh’s coffin to Mount Zion Cemetery. They waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Jerusalem is Arab.”

“I have known her my whole life” from television, said Aya Odeh, who had traveled from Nablus in the West Bank. “I feel like I have lost my mother.”

Rima Baqleh, a sociologist from Jerusalem who attended the same church as Abu Akleh, said she felt an obligation to come.

“This is the least I can do, participate in the funeral of this iconic woman who has changed the history of Palestine,” she said. “For the first time, she managed to raise the Palestinian flag by thousands of Palestinian people in [Jerusalem’s] Jaffa Gate.”

Abu Akleh’s killing has emerged as the latest flash point in the chronic tension between Israel and Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Two reporters who were with Abu Akleh, and several other witnesses, have told The Washington Post that no firefight was happening near the spot where she was killed.

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Israel has been pushing Palestinian authorities to share forensic and ballistic evidence with Israeli investigators, a request that Palestinian officials have so far flatly rejected. International diplomats are reportedly seeking to broker a joint or shared investigation, possibly including experts from a neutral third country.