The beauty and beasts in Jerusalem

Israel’s attack on Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral haunted me the most in 2022.

Israeli police confront with mourners as they carry the casket of slain Al Jazeera veteran journalist Shireen Abu
Israeli police attacked mourners as they carried the coffin of slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. [File: Maya Levin/AP]

One event above all others has haunted me this past year. An unforgivable and unforgettable scene that echoed throughout the world. It was tragic, heroic and highly symbolic.

Caught by surprise, my colleagues and I stared in disbelief, lost for words, as it all began to unravel live on our screens. Just three days after it assassinated Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh, Israel had decided to double down on its criminal mischief. The orders were handed down to assault her funeral and decimate its Palestinian character.

As soon as her mourners gathered peacefully in the courtyard of St Joseph’s Hospital in occupied East Jerusalem, carried the coffin and prepared to head to Shireen’s final resting place, the Israeli security forces charged to stop the procession. They viciously assaulted the grievers, beating them brutally with batons, making it impossible for the pallbearers to protect their bodies.

But these courageous Palestinians remained standing holding onto the casket, preserving its sanctity as it flung up and down, almost falling to the ground. Soon enough, tens of thousands of Palestinians joined the procession, turning it into the biggest in memory. For them and countless others around the world, Shireen became an icon of freedom and sacrifice.

Her funeral highlighted what Shireen spent a lifetime reporting, that the occupation is evil, cruel and sadistic. She would have probably been less surprised, less dramatic, and more sober if she had reported it herself, seeing the assault for what it is – cowardly. For nothing scares the mighty nuclear state than Palestinians uniting around their national flag and chanting patriotically, “Free Free Palestine”.

If the intention of the Israeli security forces was to stop the funeral from pouring into the street, they could have simply blocked the exit. But their true intention was to hurt and humiliate the Palestinians right in front of the international media. To show the world that Israel can do what it wants, as it wants, whenever it wants, and to make clear to its western backers, especially its American patrons, that they have no sway over Israel even when it comes to the killing of a prominent Palestinian American journalist.

Why? Because Israel is so drunk on power, it has gone mad.

For much of its history, Israel tried hard to conceal its cruelty, hide its violence, and camouflage its racism, in order to gain favour with liberal Western powers. Its justification for excessive violence was always the same: it did it all in self-defence, it had no other choice. In short, the Israelis mastered the art of chutzpah, of killing and weeping.

But today’s Israel is no longer coy about its racist violence regardless of who is at the helm of the state echelon. Unlike the older generations of Zionists who had fresh memory of European fascism and the holocaust and were receptive to western pressure, the new generation of smug Sabras (Jews born in Israel), religious fanatics and illegal settlers have no qualms being or acting like fascists.

The Robocop-type thugs who attacked Shireen’s peaceful funeral, like those who raided her house after killing her, lack all humane and moral conscience. Like their leaders, none were held accountable for their thuggery. Because unlike other rogue regimes reproved for their transgressions, Israel has generally been rewarded for its aggression – the greater the offence, the greater the reward from the United States and the West at large. Even Middle Eastern regimes have joined the schmooze ritual of late, rewarding Israel for its aggression, under the pretext of “if you can’t beat them join them”.

Netanyahu was rewarded some $40bn in US military aid after repeatedly insulting and belittling American President Barrack Obama. Israel’s merciless bombardment of the Gaza strip its expansion of illegal settlement, and its attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque were rewarded with wider Arab normalisation and greater European aid and investments.

Such flagrant schmoozing and appeasement have driven Israel utterly crazy. Like a troubled child, it continuously tests the boundaries of bad behaviour, curious when its patrons might finally act like adults and put an end to its violent fits and tantrums. To no avail.

It is no surprise then that Israelis have concluded that, aggression is not only permissible, but it pays, handsomely. No surprise that they elected the most extreme government in the history of the state after the so called moderate government produced the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2006. It is bound to get worse.

Impunity breeds arrogance and extremism.

Enter the new fascists at the helm, who despise the media and do not care about international public opinion. They want to transform Israel’s legal and political system into a new fascist theocracy and demand that the state’s racism and violence be freed from legal restrictions and judiciary oversight. In the process, they are turning against their Jewish compatriots for being too liberal, secular or gay, in other words, like the Palestinians, for not belonging, prompting one seasoned Israeli journalist to say that, well, “Zionism is Racism”.

Indeed, the government’s new manifesto declares that the Jewish people have an “exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel” i.e. to all of historic Palestine. Predictably, the rising star and Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir, has called for closing down Al Jazeera and expelling its journalists. He who was banned from serving in the Israeli military because of his extreme views, and who cheered the 1994 massacre of 29 innocent Palestinians in Hebron, calls Al Jazeera “an anti-Semitic and false propaganda network”. Surely, that would have bemused Shireen. If only.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the correct name of the hospital where mourners gathered.