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Israeli police attack mourners ahead of Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral

JERUSALEM — In real life, Shireen Abu Akleh, a famous Palestinian American broadcaster, was one of the leading chroniclers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Her death, while covering an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, made her one of the most significant recent victims of the conflict. Palestinian witnesses and officials said Ms Abu Akleh, 51, a long-time known face on the Al Jazeera network, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers, although Israeli officials said she could have been hit by Palestinian or Israeli fire.

Then, on Friday in Jerusalem, his funeral was marred by a new explosion of violence. And as with his death, it was marked by conflicting accounts.

Early Friday afternoon, as thousands of people gathered in East Jerusalem for one of the largest Palestinian funerals in recent memory, a phalanx of Israeli riot police assaulted a group of mourners wearing the coffin containing Mrs. Abu Akleh’s body, causing them to almost fall off this.

Israeli police later said they intervened because mourners, who wanted to carry the coffin on foot to the funeral, refused to put it in a hearse, an arrangement that police say was previously agreed with Mrs. Abu Akleh’s family.

But the police intervention has prompted shock and condemnation both in Israel and beyond, with the assault on mourners seen as egregious, regardless of motive.

It was the latest and perhaps the most surprising salvo in the most violent period in Israel and the occupied territories, outside of full-scale war, for several years.

The attack happened outside an East Jerusalem hospital, where Ms Abu Akleh’s body had been kept since another memorial on Thursday, and where hundreds of people had gathered to watch the start of her funeral procession.

Tensions arose between Palestinians and Israeli police after Palestinians began waving Palestinian flags and chanting nationalist slogans. They escalated after police refused to allow mourners to carry the coffin on their shoulders to the church, according to Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, a senior foreign diplomat who witnessed the row.

This caused a confrontation between the mourners, who did not allow the hearse near the hospital, and the police, who refused to let them leave with the coffin, said Mr Kühn von Burgsdorff .

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.”

Israel’s Minister for Regional Cooperation, Esawi Frej, one of the first Arabs to hold the post of Israeli minister, said on Twitter that police forces had “desecrated” the memory and funeral of Ms Abu Akleh, provoking ” an unnecessary outbreak”. He added: “The police showed no respect for the bereaved and no understanding of their role as an organization responsible for keeping order, not violating it.”

As the standoff escalated, Mr. Kühn von Burgsdorff, the European Union envoy to the Palestinians, tried to mediate between the police and the mourners, he said. Seeking a dignified funeral, Ms Abu Akleh’s brother Anton also asked the mourners to put the coffin in the hearse, Mr Kühn von Burgsdorff added.

But neither side backed down, as mourners held 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 expressions of Palestinian nationalism there.

After warning the crowd to stop chanting, without success, and after three plastic bottles were thrown in the direction of the police, the police rushed abruptly towards the mourners, a video showed.

The officers waved their batons. They kicked and beat the men carrying the coffin, forcing them to step back. They knocked down a man who had backed into the group carrying the coffin, then kicked him as he lay on the ground, the video showed.

As they were hit, the pallbearers briefly lost control of one end of the coffin, which suddenly sagged to the ground. Mourners threw projectiles, including what appeared to be a baton, and officers threw what appeared to be stun and smoke grenades.

An occasion intended as a moment of catharsis had instead descended into chaos – compounding the indignity and pain that, for many Palestinians, Ms. Abu Akleh’s death had embodied.

Ms Abu Akleh was shot dead early Wednesday morning during an Israeli raid on Jenin, a city in the northern West Bank that is home to several perpetrators of the recent deadly attacks on Israelis, and which was recently investigated Israeli. campaign against terrorism.

The Palestinian Authority public prosecutor, in a report released Friday evening, concluded that Ms. Abu Akleh had been shot deliberately by Israeli forces. Prosecutors said they based their findings on an autopsy which found she had been shot in the head, bullet marks on 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 army had released its own preliminary findings on her death hours earlier, concluding that it was “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the shots that hit and killed Ms. Abu Akleh.”

But for the first time, the Israeli army also used the report to expose a scenario in which Israeli forces could have beaten Ms Abu Akleh.

The Israeli army said it would likely need to assess the bullet that killed Ms Abu Akleh in order to come to a more certain conclusion. The Palestinian Authority, which manages the part of the West Bank where the raid occurred, is in possession of the bullet and has refused Israeli requests to test it in an Israeli laboratory, under joint American and Palestinian control.

Friday’s standoff capped an unusually tense and tumultuous two-month period that saw 19 Israelis and foreigners killed in five separate Arab attacks in Israel; more than 30 Palestinians killed in the West Bank, mostly in Israeli army counter-raids; a spasm of violence at Jerusalem’s holiest site; a new round of rocket fire from Gaza; and the first overlap between Ramadan, Passover and Easter in a generation.

Ms Abu Akleh had covered this conflict for more than two decades, having first made a name for herself as a journalist amid the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada, which rocked Israel and the occupied territories from 2000 to 2005.

She originally studied to be an architect, but eventually chose journalism “to be close to people,” she said in a short reel shared by Al Jazeera shortly after her murder on Wednesday. “It may not be easy to change reality, but at least I was able to make their voice heard in the world.”

In a 2017 interview with Palestinian TV station An-Najah NBC, she was asked if she had ever been afraid of being shot.

“We don’t throw ourselves to death,” she said. “We go there and try to figure out where we can stand and how to protect the team with me before we think about how I’m going to get on screen and what I’m going to say.”

After the attack on mourners, his coffin was eventually placed in a hearse and driven to an entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. Thousands of Palestinians crowded the alleys leading to the Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin, where her funeral was held.

His coffin was carried there on foot.

Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, Hiba Yazbek of Nazareth, Israel, and Iyad Abuheweila of Gaza City.

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