JERUSALEM – In life, Shireen Abu Akleh, an acclaimed Palestinian-American broadcaster, was one of the key chroniclers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Her death, while reporting an Israeli raid on the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, made her one of the conflict’s most prominent recent victims. Palestinian witnesses and officials said Ms. Abu Akleh, 51, a long-time leading television reporter for Al Jazeera, was shot by Israeli soldiers, although Israeli officials said she could have been hit by Palestinian or Israeli fire.
Then, on Friday in Jerusalem, her funeral was marred by another outbreak of violence.
Early in the afternoon, as thousands of people gathered in East Jerusalem for one of the largest Palestinian funerals in recent history, an Israeli riot police phalanx attacked a group of mourners who found the coffin containing Ms. Abu Akleh, nearly dropping it. †
Israeli police later said they intervened because mourners, who wanted to carry the coffin on foot to the funeral, had refused to put it in a hearse, an arrangement police said had previously been agreed with Ms. Abu Akleh.
But the police intervention sparked shock and condemnation both in Israel and abroad, with the attack on mourners being seen as blatant, regardless of motive.
It was the last and perhaps most sensational salvo of the most violent period in Israel and the Occupied Territories, outside the full-scale war, in several years.
The attack took place outside an East Jerusalem hospital, where the body of Ms. Abu Akleh had been preserved since another memorial on Thursday, where hundreds had gathered to witness the start of her funeral procession.
Tensions arose between Palestinians and Israeli police officers after Palestinians began waving Palestinian flags and chanting nationalist slogans. According to Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, a leading foreign diplomat who witnessed the dispute, they escalated after police refused to allow mourners to carry the coffin on their shoulders to church.
That led to a stalemate between mourners, who did not want the hearse to approach the hospital, and police, who refused to let them leave with the coffin, Mr Kühn von Burgsdorff said.
At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki described video footage of the clash as “deeply disturbing” and said, “We regret the intrusion into what should have been a peaceful procession.”
Israeli regional cooperation minister Esawi Frej, one of the first Arabs to serve as Israeli minister, said on Twitter that police had “desecrated” Ms Abu Akleh’s memory and funeral, causing “an unnecessary flare-up”. He added: “The police showed no respect for the mourners and no understanding for its role as the organization responsible for maintaining order, not for its violation.”
As the standoff escalated, Mr Kühn von Burgsdorff, the European Union’s envoy to the Palestinians, tried to mediate between the police and the mourners, he said. The brother of Mrs. Abu Akleh, Anton, realized it was impossible to persuade the police to change their mind and also asked the mourners to put the coffin in the hearse, added Mr Kühn von Burgsdorff.
But neither side would flinch as the mourners clung to the coffin and waved Palestinian flags against police demands. East Jerusalem is mainly populated by Palestinians, and most of the world considers it occupied territory – but Israel has annexed the area, considers it part of its capital and often prevents manifestations of Palestinian nationalism there.
After warning the crowd to stop chanting, unsuccessfully, and after three plastic bottles were thrown at police, police rushed to the mourners abruptly, the video showed.
Officers waved their batons. They kicked and punched the men carrying the coffin, pushing them backwards. They knocked over a man who had backed up into the group carrying the coffin, then kicked him as he lay on the ground, video shows.
While being hit, the box carriers briefly lost control of one end of the box, which suddenly sank to the ground. Mourners threw projectiles, including what appeared to be a stick, and officers threw what appeared to be stun and smoke grenades.
An occasion intended to be a moment of catharsis had instead turned into chaos — exacerbating the humiliation and pain that left Ms. Abu Akleh had embodied.
Ms. Abu Akleh was shot dead early Wednesday morning during an Israeli attack on Jenin, a city in the north of the West Bank that has been home to several perpetrators of recent deadly attacks on Israelis and which was the focus of a recent Israeli campaign against terrorism.
The Palestinian Authority Prosecutor concluded in a report released Friday evening that Ms. Abu Akleh was deliberately shot by Israeli forces. Prosecutors said they based their findings on an autopsy that showed she had been shot in the head, bullets in a tree next to where she was killed and interviews with witnesses, including another Al Jazeera journalist who was shot in the back. .
The Israeli military had released its own preliminary findings about her death just hours earlier, concluding that it was “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire that struck and killed Ms. Abu Akleh.”
But for the first time, the Israeli military also used the report to plot a scenario in which Israeli forces could target Ms. Abu Akleh.
The Israeli military said it should probably assess the bullet that Ms. Abu Akleh killed in order to draw a more certain conclusion. The Palestinian Authority, which controls the part of the West Bank where the raid took place, is in possession of the bullet and has rejected Israeli requests for it to be assessed in an Israeli laboratory under joint American and Palestinian supervision.
Friday’s showdown concluded an unusually tense and tumultuous two-month period in which 19 Israelis and foreigners were killed in five separate Arab attacks in Israel; more than 30 Palestinians killed in the West Bank, mostly in counter-attacks by the Israeli army; a wave of violence at the holiest site in Jerusalem; another round of rocket fire from Gaza; and the first overlap between Ramadan, Passover and Easter in a generation.
Ms. Abu Akleh had covered such conflicts for more than two decades, first making her name as a journalist during the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada, which shook Israel and the occupied territories from 2000 to 2005.
She had originally studied to become an architect, but eventually chose journalism “to be close to the people,” she said in a short film shared by Al Jazeera shortly after she was assassinated on Wednesday. “It may not be easy to change reality, but at least I was able to bring their voice to the world.”
In a 2017 interview with Palestinian television channel An-Najah NBC, she was asked if she was ever afraid of being shot.
“We don’t throw ourselves to death,” she said. “We’re going and we’re trying to figure out where we can stand and how we can protect the team with me before I think about how I’m going to get on screen and what I’m going to say.”
After the attack on the mourners, her coffin was finally placed in a hearse and wheeled to an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. Thousands of Palestinians had gathered in the alleys leading to the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin, where her funeral took place.
Her coffin was carried there on foot.
Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, Hiba Yazbek from Nazareth, Israel, and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City.