Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, at the centre, speaks at a press conference, joined by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, right, and the General Director of Saint Joseph Hospital Jamil Koussa – Copyright AFP –
Hiba Aslan and Claire Gounon
The Catholic archbishop in Jerusalem on Monday strongly criticised Israel’s “police invasion” last week of a Christian hospital ahead of the funeral of slain Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh.
The veteran journalist was shot dead during an Israeli army raid in the West Bank. Palestinians and the TV network said Israeli troops killed her, while Israel said Palestinian gunfire may have been to blame.
Anger over her death was compounded Friday when baton-wielding Israeli police in annexed east Jerusalem beat pallbearers carrying Abu Akleh’s coffin which was covered by a Palestinian flag.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, on Monday condemned “Israel’s police invasion and disproportionate use of force” at St Joseph’s hospital, where her body was being held.
At a press conference at the hospital, he criticised Israeli police for “attacking mourners, striking them with batons, using smoke grenades (and) shooting rubber bullets”.
Police had stormed the hospital, “disrespecting the church, disrespecting the health institute (and) disrespecting the memory of the deceased,” said Pizzaballa, speaking on behalf of the bishops of the Holy Land.
The hospital is owned by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition, a French-founded congregation that has been present in former Palestine and Israel for nearly 200 years.
– Chaotic scenes –
Israeli police have vowed to investigate the chaotic incident, which sparked widespread condemnation including from the United States, European Union and United Nations.
Those calls echoed global demands for an impartial probe into the death of Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, who Al Jazeera said was killed by Israel “deliberately” and “in cold blood”.
Israel’s army has said it was not yet clear if she was killed by stray Palestinian gunfire or by Israeli sniper fire aimed at nearby militants in the West Bank flashpoint district of Jenin.
Israeli police have meanwhile offered a series of explanations for the unrest on the day of her funeral. In a police video, an officer is seen telling the crowd that the procession would not commence until the crowd stopped “nationalistic”, or Palestinian, chants.
Israeli forces frequently crack down on individuals publicly expressing their Palestinian identity, including by waving the flag.
They have also said they were compelled to act to uphold the plans for the funeral agreed with the family, which were being disrupted by a “mob” made up of some “300 rioters”.
The Abu Akleh family has categorically rejected the police version of events.
The late journalist’s brother Anton Abu Akleh said that police had called him the night before the funeral to insist there should not be “any Palestinian flags, no slogans and no chanting”.
When the family arrived at the hospital on Friday, police already seemed poised for unrest, he explained, saying “the roads were blocked, (officers) were fully armoured, ready for a riot.”
He urged accountability over the “savage” Israeli action.
– ‘Absolutely gratuitous’ –
Lina Abu Akleh, the late journalist’s niece, said that a police officer “threatened to beat me if I didn’t move out of the way”, and that she hid inside the hospital once the police started throwing stun grenades at mourners.
St Joseph’s director Jamil Kousa told AFP that he had spoken to police outside the hospital on Friday and pleaded that the procession be allowed to go ahead “peacefully”, but that officers explained it would be blocked if mourners shouted Palestinian national “chants.”
Father Luc Pareydt, advisor for religious affairs at the French Consulate in Jerusalem who was also at the press conference, told AFP he was struck by how “calm and dignified” the mourners were before the police raid.
A spontaneous joint prayer between Palestinian Muslims and Christians broke out in the hospital yard before the raid, he said.
The Israeli response, he insisted, “was absolutely gratuitous and completely unjustified in terms of proportionality.”