Some police critical of force after violence at journalist’s funeral in Jerusalem

Some officials in the Israel Police have criticized the force over its violent intervention at Friday’s funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, beating mourners and firing stun grenades into the crowd, while others accused Public Security Minister Omer Barlev of not backing officers and pressuring police chief Yaakov Shabtai to launch an investigation.

Abu Akleh, 51, was killed by gunfire Wednesday morning while covering clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen during an Israeli military operation in the West Bank city of Jenin.

Scenes of Israeli police using force against Palestinians who were carrying her casket outside a Jerusalem hospital and nearly toppling it drew widespread condemnation on Friday, with the White House saying it was “deeply disturbing,” while the European Union said it was “appalled.”

The police said in a subsequent statement that it intervened because rioters took her casket at the hospital against her family’s wishes, and prevented it from being loaded onto a hearse, as previously agreed, for that part of the funeral procession. But Abu Akleh’s brother said the family and mourners had hoped to hold a “small procession” but were “bombarded” by officers as they left the hospital.

Following the violence and the international condemnation of Israel, Shabtai ordered an internal investigation of the events.

“The Jerusalem District Police should have realized that this event needs to be allowed to take place, especially because of the ramifications and the international aspects of it,” an unnamed police source quoted by Channel 12 said Saturday night.

“Even if Palestinian flags were waved and even if anti-Israel statements were heard and even if several stones were thrown, the commanding officers should have thought carefully before ordering officers to rush with batons and reach coffin carriers,” the source added.

But other senior police officials cited by Hebrew media argued Saturday that the probe was a result of political pressure applied by Barlev.

“If it was up to the police, the probe would never have been opened,” they told the Ynet news site, accusing the minister of not backing the police.

Israeli police confront mourners as they carry the casket of slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during her funeral in East Jerusalem, on Friday, May 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Levin)

According to a report by Channel 13, there is “a lot of anger” against Barlev among the police force, with some officials insisting that he “forced” Shabtai to launch a probe.

Senior police officials said efforts were made to allow a peaceful and respectful funeral, including coordinating the event’s logistics with the deceased reporter’s family.

Palestinian mourners wave national flags as they carry the casket of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, during her funeral procession outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 13, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

“On the other hand,” the officials argued Saturday, “hundreds of rioters sought to interfere with the ceremony and hurt police officers.”

“As is the case in any operational incident, and especially one that saw officers exposed to violence by rioters and forced to resort to using force, the Israel Police will investigate the incident,” they added.

The officials also vowed not to let officers “be scapegoats in the most complex security situation seen in the last few years.”

“These are officers who sacrifice their own safety to protect Israeli citizens from terrorism,” they said.

Also Saturday, Kan public broadcaster reported that despite ordering the probe, Shabtai has indicated no disciplinary steps will be taken against any officers involved.

Video released by Israel Police showed at least one Palestinian hurled an object at Israeli officers before the dispersal began. The footage then showed Palestinians throwing objects at police after officers had moved in to disperse the crowd.

Barlev announced the probe into the incident earlier Saturday, saying it was important to “draw conclusions” from the conduct of police during the ceremony.

Results will be presented to officials in the coming days, according to the minister.

A statement issued by the police read: “The Israel Police supports its police officers, but as a professional organization that seeks to learn and improve, it will also draw lessons from the incident.”

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L) and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police in Jerusalem, May 1, 2022 (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Responding to images from the funeral, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said they were “deeply disturbing.”

US President Joe Biden said he did not know the details surrounding that incident but noted that it “has to be investigated.”

The European Union said it was “appalled.”

The clashes erupted at Saint Joseph’s Hospital after Palestinians sought to carry Abu Akleh’s coffin on foot, waving several Palestinian flags, to the Old City.

Police had designated that the procession would begin at the Jaffa Gate, less than two miles away.

Police instructed the crowd to return the coffin to the hearse, “but the mob refused,” police said. “Police intervened to disperse the mob and prevent them from taking the coffin, so that the funeral could proceed as planned in accordance with the wishes of the family.”

The crowd seized the coffin, leading the Palestinians gathered in the hospital square to cheer, carrying her casket forward.

After a brief standoff, police officers rushed the crowd, beating mourners and firing stun grenades. Abu Akleh’s casket almost toppled to the ground during the skirmish.

Abu Akleh’s body was then taken by van, surrounded by a police escort, to the Greek Melkite Church near Jaffa Gate.

Officers tore Palestinian flags off of the van as well before escorting it to the ancient sanctuary, according to footage.

Israel Police later said that six people had been detained after riots “that had included stone-throwing.”

In an interview with the BBC on Friday, Abu Akleh’s brother Tony appeared to dispute the Israel Police version of events, saying that the family and mourners hoped to hold a “small procession” but were “bombarded” by officers as they left the hospital.

“It is really very sad to see this happening at a funeral. We were hoping to have a small procession from the hospital to the church and then to the cemetery,” he said. “But unfortunately the minute we started walking out of the hospital we were bombarded by several Israeli police, and just for nothing. We were just leaving the hospital for the church. We were shocked to see them just starting beating people, throwing stun grenades, tear gas. All this — we cannot explain it. This happened without any explanation.”

Protesters hold candles and a photo of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed while covering clashes between IDF troops and Palestinian gunmen during an IDF raid in Jenin, in Haifa, Israel, on May 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Abu Akleh was one of the most beloved Palestinian journalists working in Arabic media. A longtime correspondent for the pan-Arab network Al Jazeera, many also saw her as a trailblazing model for women in a field dominated by men.

On Saturday, the Palestinian Authority said that while international bodies could “participate” in the investigation into her death, Israel would not be permitted to join the probe.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has accused Israel of “executing” Abu Akleh. Israeli officials have declared that it is too soon to determine who fired the bullet that killed her.

In an interim report Friday, the Israel Defense Forces said it had not yet been able to determine who fired the fatal shot. But it said it had narrowed down the possibilities to two scenarios — one involving an instance of indiscriminate Palestinian gunfire, and the other a case of possible errant IDF sniper fire.