The brother of Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran Palestinian journalist gunned down in controversial circumstances in Jenin last week, slammed the Israeli police’s account of the violence at her funeral on Friday as “illogical and untrue” in an interview with the Times of Israel Sunday.
Anton Abu Akleh – Shireen’s only brother – also expressed his hope that the Al Jazeera correspondent’s tragic death could be a “new opportunity” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, who had worked for Al Jazeera for more than two decades, was shot and killed while covering an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in Jenin last Wednesday.
More than 10,000 Palestinians showed up to pay their respects to Abu Akleh at Friday’s long and tense funeral that wound its way through Jerusalem from Sheikh Jarrah to the Mount Zion cemetery. But the day was marred by scenes of police beating Palestinian mourners carrying his coffin to St. Joseph’s Hospital.
In footage from the scene, Palestinians carried his coffin forward in an attempt to form an impromptu procession on foot. After a brief standoff – in which Palestinians threw objects at police – officers rushed into the crowd, beating mourners and firing stun grenades into the crowd. Under attack from the police, the pallbearers nearly knocked down Abu Akleh’s coffin.
The violence has drawn widespread international condemnation. In the aftermath, Israeli police said they acted against “300 rioters” who violently seized the coffin, attacked cops and sought to march on foot to the Old City, in violation of the family’s wishes.
“Israeli Police intervened to disperse the crowd and prevent them from taking the coffin, so that the funeral could proceed as planned in accordance with the wishes of the family,” Israel Police said in a statement late Friday.
But in a telephone interview on Sunday, Anton Abu Akleh described a different series of events and criticized the Israeli police for “extreme, vicious and brutal force” outside the hospital.
“Everyone who was there was there to mourn Shireen. What’s this crowd they’re talking about? And even if there were one or two, how many police do you need to deal with them? The whole story here is illogical and false,” he said.
Israel Police announced late Saturday that they would investigate the officers’ handling of the funeral.
Shireen Abu Akleh traveled to Jenin early Wednesday morning to cover the clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen. She was shot in the head while wearing a press vest, with Israeli and Palestinian authorities initially providing differing accounts of who fired the bullet that killed her.
Palestinian witnesses and officials said Israeli soldiers fired the fatal shot. Israeli officials initially said it was likely Palestinian gunmen shot her by mistake, but later acknowledged that errant Israeli fire could also have caused her death.
His assassination caused widespread shock and grief among Palestinians, to whom Abu Akleh was a familiar face. Abu Akleh started working for Al Jazeera in 1997 and rose to prominence during the violent years of the Second Intifada.
Shireen’s older brother Anton, who lives overseas and works for the United Nations Development Programme, was summoned by Israeli police to a local station on Thursday evening to discuss the upcoming funeral. He said police asked where the family intended to hold the procession and demanded that mourners refrain from raising the Palestinian flag.
“We briefed them on the arrangements we had made, the routes we planned to travel – from Jaffa Gate to Mount Zion. They demanded that we not raise the Palestinian flag or chant slogans,” Abu Akleh said.
According to Abu Akleh, he never accepted the conditions set by the police. “I told them that I couldn’t control such a funeral,” he said on Sunday. “It’s a mass burial for all of Palestine.”
“There was no agreement. I told them our arrangements and that was it,” Abu Akleh said.
On Friday afternoon, when Palestinians carried Abu Akleh’s coffin from St. Joseph’s Hospital, some chanted their intention to take his body on foot to the Old City, just under two miles away. The Abu Akleh family had planned to take his coffin by hearse to the church in the Old City where the last rites would be read over his body.
But Abu Akleh strongly denied that the Palestinians forcibly snatched the coffin from the family or attacked the hearse, as claimed by some media outlets and the Israeli police.
Abu Akleh also expressed skepticism that the Palestinians carrying the coffin actually intended to carry his body on their shoulders to the Old City on foot. Walkers would have traveled only a short distance, he suggested.
“It is true that they have walked a little. But they walked so as to carry his body to the hearse. The hearse was waiting there to take the coffin,” Abu Akleh said.
“It wouldn’t even have been possible to walk from St. Joseph’s Hospital to Jaffa Gate. It’s a long and difficult walk, with everyone gathered there,” he added.
However, other witnesses disputed Anton Abu Akleh’s explanation. According to foreign diplomat Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, who sought to mediate between police and mourners at the scene, the Palestinians insisted on transporting her to the Old City and prevented the hearse from approaching the ‘hospital.
After the mourners stepped forward, a brief standoff ensued. Abu Akleh said he told the Palestinian attendees to carry the coffin to the hearse but the police responded quickly, “no questions asked”.
In footage from the scene, Palestinians can be seen waving Palestinian flags and chanting facing police at the entrance to the hospital with the coffin held high. The officers pushed them back, beating them with batons, before getting back into formation.
About a minute later, after the Palestinians threw several more objects at the police, the officers rushed into the crowd, beating the funeral attendees and firing stun grenades. Helmeted riot police armed with batons struck pallbearers holding Abu Akleh’s coffin, nearly knocking it to the ground.
“Whatever we agreed, the way the police handled the situation as soon as the coffin was taken out of the hospital was shameful. They used brutal and extreme force and even beat the porters. It was simply unacceptable,” Abu Akleh said.
“They should have given us time to conduct his funeral without their interference,” he added.
After the clashes ended, Abu Akleh’s body was loaded into the hearse – whose windows had been smashed by the police, according to Anton – and taken under heavy police guard to the church in the Old City.
“Because the police had put restrictions on the roads to prevent people from attending the funeral, I was even late to church,” Anton said.
When news of Shireen Abu Akleh’s death broke on Wednesday, Israel offered to conduct a joint investigation with the Palestinian Authority into the circumstances. The Palestinian Authority refused and said it would conduct its own investigation.
Other countries, such as the United States, have offered to participate in the survey. On Saturday, Ramallah said he would open the investigation to the “involvement” of “international parties”, although it was not immediately clear what that might mean.
Abu Akleh also rejected Israeli calls for a joint investigation. Like many Palestinians, he firmly believes that Israeli soldiers are responsible for the murder of his sister.
“We support the involvement of any party in the investigation – except the Israelis. If you are accused of a crime, it makes no sense for you to investigate it,” Abu Akleh said.
Asked if he had a message for the Israeli public, Abu Akleh said he hoped his sister’s death could be an opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace, “despite how bitter and painful it is for the Palestinians and for everyone”.
“I ask the Israeli people to see this as an opportunity for peace. The Palestinian people want peace, aim for peace. This feeling should be shared,” Abu Akleh said.
Abu Akleh blamed the Israeli right for the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, saying it had become increasingly extreme.
“I hope that the Israelis will change their way of seeing the Palestinian people. We Palestinians also want peace. We want to live in peace,” Abu Akleh said.
“I wish this is the new beginning of a new era in our country and in the Middle East.”