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Foreign Policy

Why Israel Is Afraid of Palestinian Funerals

People attend the funeral of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem on May 13. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Anton Abu Akleh ran from one Israeli police officer to another, begging them to stop beating the pallbearers carrying his sister’s coffin in East Jerusalem. But he was ignored—and “almost attacked,” he said—by police who had suddenly assaulted the crowd mourning his sister, Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian American Al Jazeera journalist who was killed while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered on May 13 to commemorate the veteran journalist, whose killing two days before led to an international outcry. A video of her body face down on the ground had gone viral the day of her death, and while eyewitnesses said she was killed by Israeli sniper fire, the Israeli government suggested she might have been hit by Palestinians during a gunfight. An Israeli human rights organization has found the Israeli government’s claims to be implausible, and the government quickly backtracked and said she could have been shot by an Israeli soldier, though it will not be launching a criminal investigation.

As footage of Shireen Abu Akleh’s casket almost falling to the ground circulated online, even Israel’s supporters were shocked. Israeli authorities later claimed that the police acted in her family’s interest, saying the pallbearers had stolen the casket. (A few days after the funeral, they even arrested one of the pallbearers, though an Israeli police spokesperson did not provide a reason for the arrest.) Anton Abu Akleh denied the authorities’ claim. The men were simply transporting the coffin to the hearse, he said, 100 feet from the morgue’s entrance.

“The minute Shireen was brought out of the morgue, that very minute, the Israeli police attacked the pallbearers,” he said on Friday. “I didn’t know what to do in the face of such barbaric and extensive use of force by the police.”

Funeral processions of political figures are often flash points in the world’s conflict zones. To state security forces, they’re a law-and-order problem, as authorities fear funerals can lead to an uptick in support and militant recruitment; to anti-state groups, they’re an opportunity to amplify their message. Shireen Abu Akleh was neither a terrorist nor a dissident. However, upon her death, the veteran journalist who had covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for nearly three decades became a Palestinian icon—and Israeli authorities appeared to treat her funeral as if she represented a threat to their security.

Although it’s unclear whether Israeli forces intended to disrupt the funeral from the beginning, Israeli authorities had warned Anton Abu Akleh a day before that there should be no pro-Palestinian chants or Palestinian flags on display during the procession. “I think that was the main reason [for the attack],” he said. “The policemen were trying to remove the flags on the hearse.” During the procession, Israeli police were seen ripping off those flags and pulling them out of mourners’ hands. Al Jazeera reported in its live coverage that they also detained people who chanted pro-Palestinian slogans.

Israel’s actions at Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral seem to indicate it is more concerned about the long-lasting impact of large public funerals of Palestinian icons than potential backlash by human rights groups and the international community.

Eran Lerman, a former Israeli deputy national security advisor, told Foreign Policy that Israeli forces are worried about the possibility of violence at Palestinians’ funerals, “as well as the broader impact of the glorification of terror acts as ‘Shahada’ or martyrdom”—though he added that this was “not relevant” in Shireen Abu Akleh’s case.

“At the time of the Second Intifada, public funerals were used to mobilize big crowds and anger and feed the kind of passions that promoted violence against Israelis,” said Dennis Ross, a U.S. diplomat known for his role as a negotiator in the Washington-mediated peace process between Israelis and Palestinians in the 1990s.

Members of the international community have condemned Israel’s actions to disrupt the crowd at Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral. European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was “appalled” by the scenes at the funeral, while White House press secretary Jen Psaki said they were “obviously deeply disturbing.”

Israel seems more concerned about the long-lasting impact of large public funerals for Palestinians than potential backlash by human rights groups.

“We were deeply troubled to see the images of Israeli police intruding into her funeral procession today,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press statement. “Every family deserves to be able to lay their loved ones to rest in a dignified and unimpeded manner.”

How Israeli security forces handled Shireen Abu Akleh’s procession is not dissimilar to its approach to funerals of armed fighters belonging to Hamas, a Palestinian group designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union.

Just days after her funeral, mourners attending the funeral of 21-year-old Walid al-Sharif were also beaten by the police. Israeli media reported that Hamas claimed Sharif as a member. He had died from injuries sustained in clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem last month.

According to Anwar Mhajne, a political science professor at Stonehill College, the restrictions that the Israeli government imposed on Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral shared some similarities to those at the funerals of the Arab Israeli men who carried out a deadly shooting in the Israeli city of Hadera in late March. “The police demanded from the family that they get buried in the early morning hours, and restrict attendance to no more than 50 people at each funeral,” she wrote in an email. “They also agreed there would be no inciting calls or banners and no processions.”

Dror Sadot, the spokesperson for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, said the Israeli police’s actions at Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral were “horrific” and exposed “a broader, more routine aspect” to Israel’s approach toward Palestinians mourning their dead. Sadot said that Israeli security forces’ actions at the journalist’s funeral are part of a pattern of Israeli abuses at Palestinian funerals that B’Tselem had documented over the years, including dismantling of mourning tents, destroying memorials and murals commemorating the dead, and “violent incursions into the homes of grieving families, as was also the case with the Abu Akleh family,” as police had stormed her home hours after she died.

Furthermore, Shireen Abu Akleh is not the only journalist allegedly killed by Israeli security forces in recent years. According to Palestinian Ministry of Information, at least 45 journalists have been killed by Israeli forces since 2000, Al Jazeera reported. Yusef Abu Hussein, a broadcaster for the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa radio station, was killed last year when an Israeli bomb hit his home, and in 2018, Ahmed Abu Hussein and Yaser Murtaja were reportedly killed by Israeli fire in Gaza. (The Israel Defense Forces have denied targeting journalists.)

Israel is not the only country accused of killing journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 80 journalists around the world have been killed by government officials, military personnel, and political groups since 2016. The brutal killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the killings of Lokman Slim and Samir Kassir in Lebanon, allegedly by Iran-backed Hezbollah, are just some of the cases where justice has not been served.

But Israel has certainly come across as impervious to calls for restraint and unafraid of diplomatic consequences for its actions. And while Israel might not be held accountable for its actions at Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral, it will find it hard to undo the memory its aggressive policing has left behind.

Ajai Sahni, a counterterrorism expert and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in India, compared Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral to those of Kashmiri separatists, saying it was essentially a “political act” and that the state responded to it as such.

In Indian-held Kashmir in 2016, throngs of mourners attended the funeral of Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri militant in his early 20s whose procession turned into a call for recruitment. Many Indian analysts and security experts believe that his funeral encouraged recruitment of Kashmiri youth to militant groups, which led to the strongest wave of militant attacks in the region in decades.

In 2020, the Indian government unofficially banned public funeral processions of militants and civilians killed by security forces, claiming to be following COVID-19 restrictions, and even refused to hand over their bodies to their families. Vijay Kumar, the inspector general of police in Kashmir, called it a historic step that “stopped glamorizing terrorists and avoided potential law and order problems.”

When militant or opposition groups see a public figure as symbolic of their cause, whatever that person’s actual role, that person’s funeral is bound to become an emotionally charged occasion that also serves as a tool for future mobilization, Sahni said. “Shireen’s death was taken up by Palestinians,” he said. “Her own occupation, motives, or intent were no longer the factors in play.”

Israeli officials have gone further, implicitly portraying journalists as equivalent to terrorists. Ran Kochav, an Israeli military spokesperson, even equated Shireen Abu Akleh and other journalists in Jenin the day she was killed with armed fighters, telling Army Radio that they were “armed with cameras.”

But those arguments do not hold much sway with the family of the deceased. “My sister was not a terrorist—she was the voice of the people,” Anton Abu Akleh said.