Jerusalem Police Chief Ordered Palestinian Flags Confiscated at Al Jazeera Journalist's Funeral While Abroad

'You can’t fight dozens, if not hundreds, of flags at such a sensitive event, when any friction could lead to a more violent confrontation,' police source says after clashes mar Shireen Abu Akleh's funeral

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Family and friends carry the coffin of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh as clashes erupt with Israeli police, on Friday.
Family and friends carry the coffin of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh as clashes erupt with Israeli police, on Friday.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Jerusalem’s police chief gave the order to officers to prevent the waving of Palestinian flags and to confiscate any Palestinian flags they saw during the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last Friday, police sources told Haaretz. At the time, the district police commander was not present in the Old City, but taking part in a police delegation to Germany.

In the absence of Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman, his deputy, Danny Levy, was in charge of the police forces at the funeral. Police sources said Turgeman gave his order regarding the Palestinian flags during a meeting the day before the funeral, which he attended remotely.

The police issued a statement saying that enforcement at the funeral "was carried out in accordance with the law," and that action was taken "against suspects who waved PLO flags while making calls for incitement and riots." They added that all of the commands were given by commanders who were at the scene.

During the funeral procession, police clashed with participants, in part over the fact that they carried Palestinian flags. Police also removed all the flags hung along the route of the procession, whether on the streets or in car windows, as well as from participants’ hands. Some of the flags were confiscated, and they used force to prevent the funeral attendees from waving them.

A video of the clashes at the funeral procession that has circulated in Palestinian media

“You can’t give orders from afar when you aren’t there on the ground,” one police source said. “If there are one or two flags that could lead to an escalation on the ground, fine. But you can’t fight dozens, if not hundreds, of flags at such a sensitive event, when any friction could lead to a more violent confrontation.”

During the funeral procession, a group of police officers could be seen standing on a corner searching for Palestinian flags as participants left the church where the funeral service was held and proceeded to the Mount Zion cemetery for the burial, East Jerusalem residents who were standing a few meters away started warning participants who carried flags to put them away lest they be arrested.

The police's conduct at Abu Akleh's funeral garnered both national and international criticism and condemnation. Television footage from the procession shows Israeli officers striking mourners who were carrying Abu Akleh's casket with batons. At least 10 people required medical assistance, and the police said six rioters were arrested for attacking officers during the procession.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, in coordination with Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, ordered a probe into the clashes on Saturday. When asked about the Israeli forces' actions at the funeral, U.S. President Joe Biden said "I don't know all the detail, but I know it has to be investigated."

The attorney general’s guidelines are that police should seek to remove a flag only when there is “a high probability that waving the flag will lead a severe disturbance of the peace.” Last year, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev urged the police commissioner to limit the confiscation of Palestinian flags during demonstrations to exceptional cases.

But the Israel Police does not have its own set policy regarding flag waving. At a 2018 demonstration against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, for instance, protesters waved dozens of Palestinian flags, yet police did not intervene. The officer who presided over that event was Danny Levy, at that time commander of the Yarkon District Police.

The police stated in response: “The preparations and the operation were managed by Jerusalem’s deputy police chief, who conducted discussions and got approval for the plans from all the relevant officers and other parties. Police held a discussion with members of the [Abu Akleh] family in advance to coordinate, and the goal of the police deployment was to enable the funeral to take place in compliance with the law.

“In reality, even before the funeral procession began, there were inflammatory shouts accompanied by violent disturbances of the peace and the throwing of stones, bottles and other objects at police officers. Therefore, the police were forced to intervene and hold back the rioters, who tried to turn the funeral into an illegal display of violence and incitement. As a result of this violence, police officers were wounded and people were arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace and assaulting police officers.

“Contrary to what is claimed, the acts of enforcement against the suspects who waved PLO flags while making inflammatory comments and disturbing the peace were carried out in compliance with the law and existing orders on this issue.

“All of the decisions and orders both before and during the operation were given by officers on the ground under the command of Jerusalem’s deputy police chief, who was filling in for the district’s police chief. Any attempt to describe the situation otherwise distorts and sins against the truth. We will continue to take action against unbridled incitement, violence and disturbances of the peace of any kind.”

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