Prominent Druze Sheikh Laid to Rest After Followers Snatch His Body From Israeli Hospital

Thousands attend funeral of Sheikh Hassan Halabi in locked down Majdal Shams

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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הלווית השייח חלבי, היום במג'דל שמס
The funeral of Sheikh Halabi in Majdal Shams, October 31, 2020. Credit:
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Sheikh Abu Zain Aldin Hassan Halabi, one of the most distinguished religious leaders in the Druze community, was laid to rest Saturday in Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights after followers snatched his body from an Israeli hospital that refused to hand over his body because of COVID restrictions. 

Halabi died aged 76 on Friday afternoon at Ziv Medical Center in Safed after his condition worsened due to COVID-19. Thousands from nearby communities in the Golan and Galilee attended his funeral in Majdal Shams. The funeral was coordinated with the police and Health Ministry.

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Israel's outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said on Saturday that he was concerned about a potential significant rise in infections in Druze communities following the mass funeral of a prominent sheikh, and said that anyone among the thousands who attended should be tested “in a few days.”

Gamzu also said that enforcement of coronavirus restrictions would be stepped up in Arab communities in the coming week, stating that the government plans to provide additional budgets to Arab localities to deal with the pandemic.

On Friday evening, dozens stormed the hospital and took Halabi's body without authorization, transferring him to Majdal Shams, which is under lockdown amid high infection rates.

A source familiar with the details of the incident told Haaretz that community leaders had asked the hospital to allow the transfer of the sheikh's body to Majdal Shams, but their request was turned down since he had died of the virus and amid the restrictions imposed on the locality.   

Officers from the police's Special Patrol Unit arrived at the hospital after being informed that an attempt to snatch the body would take place. According to a police source, the cops said they saw the hospital's medical staff releasing the body and assumed it had been approved. The police commented that matter is being examined.

A Majdal Shams resident told Haaretz that the sheikh's followers from the Golan Heights and the Galilee were the ones who took his body from the hospital.

Thousands from adjacent communities held a procession for him in Majdal Shams on Friday, raising concerns of virus spread. According to local reports, the sheikh's body was displayed in a public area without the required precautions.

Druze lawmaker Gadeer Mreeh of Yesh Atid-Telem wrote on Twitter that she categorically condemns the incident. "This behavior doesn't befit the esteemed late sheikh."

According to a statement issued on Saturday by Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif, the current spiritual leader of the Druze community, immediately upon news of Sheikh Hassan Halabi’s death, the Druze leadership had called on the community to observe the Health Ministry’s guidelines, and specifically asked that followers not come to Majdal Shams for the burial ceremony. 

The statement added that the incident at the hospital was not done with the assent of the leadership or the deceased sheikh’s family, and emphasized that the funeral held on Saturday afternoon was coordinated with the Israel Police, Homefront Command and the Majdal Shams Regional Council.

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