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Shireen Abu Akleh, slain Al Jazeera journalist, is buried in Jerusalem

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JERUSALEM — The funeral of slain Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh began in chaos Friday, as Israeli police beat mourners with batons, after the mourners tried to carry her coffin on their shoulders and initially refused to let it travel in a hearse.

By day’s end, the crowds had swelled into the largest Palestinian gathering in Jerusalem in recent memory. Mourners called it a stunning display of national unity, prompted by the death of a journalist who was being hailed as an icon, with a face familiar to audiences across the Arab world, and the latest victim, they said, of Israel’s decades-long occupation.

Abu Akleh, a correspondent for the Al Jazeera news channel, was shot dead Wednesday while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank. The network and Palestinian authorities said she had been shot by Israeli troops. Israel has said she was caught in crossfire. After initially blaming Palestinian gunmen, the military said Thursday it was examining the possibility one of its soldiers was responsible.

Before Friday’s ceremony, numerous police were visible along the planned route of a procession that was to carry Abu Akleh through Jerusalem’s Old City to a Christian cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where she was to be buried in a family plot. The funeral marked the second day of memorial events honoring Abu Akleh, who reported for Al Jazeera for more than two decades.

A ceremony in Ramallah on Thursday attracted a crowd of several thousand West Bank mourners, many of whom sobbed and rushed to touch the coffin of a figure who had grown familiar in living rooms across the Arab world in her two decades on the air. A procession then carried her body across an armed Israeli checkpoint into Jerusalem.

For Palestinian journalists, a colleague’s death hits close to home

A crowd of several hundred formed early Friday at the entrance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem, where Abu Akleh’s body had rested overnight. In the minutes before the procession was due to leave the the hospital, several dozen Muslim men lined up for Friday prayers, kneeling in the hospital parking lot. Behind them two mourners held up large floral crosses. Then the crowd gathered, with Palestinian flags waving.

Israeli police and Border Police in significant numbers watched from outside the enclosed parking lots.

“God is greatest,” some chanted in Arabic. “From Jerusalem to Jenin, God bless your soul Shireen.”

But the crowd prevented a hearse from backing up to the hospital door, intent on carrying her body on its shoulders at least part of the way to the cemetery. Abu Akleh’s brother, sitting on someone’s shoulders, beseeched the crowd to let the hearse through. “For God’s sake, let us put her in the car and finish the day,” he said.

“On the shoulder on the shoulder!” people chanted, and beat the hearse with sticks until it pulled away for a second time. The coffin was carried out of the hospital on the shoulders of mourners, followed by a stretcher carrying a journalist’s blue, bullet-resistant vest.

Within minutes, though, Israeli police had entered the hospital parking lot and, setting off stun grenades, beat back the mourners, as people scattered amid a cascade of thrown bottle and rocks and Abu Akleh’s coffin fell toward the ground.

With police keeping station in the compound, the hearse was eventually allowed to leave the hospital compound, bringing Abu Akleh’s body to a Cathedral of the Annunciation of the Virgin in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Israeli security agencies had said they were braced for the possibility of clashes Friday, especially in areas around the Old City that have been the scene of fighting between police and Palestinian protesters in recent weeks. Officers had been advised to “minimize friction” with funeral goers, according to local media reports.

Thousands of people joined the procession as it made its way from the church to the Mt. Zion cemetery, also in the Old City. Aya Odeh had come from Nazareth.

“Who doesn’t know Shireen? I have known her my whole life” from television, she said. “She is like my mother. I feel like I have lost my mother.”

Rima Baqleh, a sociologist from Jerusalem, attended the same church as Abu Akleh.

“This is the least I can do — participate in the funeral of this iconic woman who has changed the history of Palestine,” she said.

“She has united Palestinians, Christian and Muslim,” she said. “For the first time, she managed to raise the Palestinian flag by thousands of Palestinian people in Jaffa Gate.”

Abu Akleh’s killing has emerged as the latest flash point in the chronic tension between Israel and Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Two reporters who were with Abu Akleh, and several other witnesses have told The Washington Post that no firefight was happening near the spot where she was killed.

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Israel has been pushing to Palestinian authorities to share forensic and ballistic evidence with Israeli investigators, a request that Palestinian officials have so far flatly rejected. International diplomats are reportedly seeking to broker a joint or shared investigation, possibly including experts from a neutral third country.

A Palestinian forensics expert reported on findings Wednesday that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was not fired at close range but that it was not yet possible to determine whether it had come from an Israeli weapon. The caliber, reportedly a 5.56×45mm round, is commonly used by M-16s and other weapons used by both IDF and Palestinian fighters.

Palestinian officials refused Thursday to turn the bullet over for Israeli analysis. The IDF said it had secured the weapons of soldiers at the scene in case they are allowed access to the bullet for a balletic comparison.

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