Shireen Abu Aqleh, the Palestinian American journalist shot dead during an Israeli army operation, has been honoured with a full state memorial in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
At least 5,000 people lined the streets on Thursday as her coffin, draped in the Palestinian flag, was driven through the city and the Qalandia checkpoint en route to St Joseph hospital nearer her home in occupied East Jerusalem. Her funeral will be held in the holy city on Friday.
Attenders brought wreaths of flowers and waved Palestinian flags as the ambulance carrying her body passed by, escorted by a dozen masked gunmen belonging to the Palestinian Fatah movement. Some people threw rose petals while the militants fired into the air, accompanied by chants of “From Ramallah to Jenin, God have mercy on you, Shireen” and “The true voice never dies”.
The 51-year-old reporter was shot in the head on Wednesday morning in the West Bank city of Jenin during what her colleagues at the scene said was a surprise burst of Israeli fire on a small group of journalists covering an expected Israeli military raid.
Video of the incident shows Abu Aqleh was wearing a helmet and body armour clearly marked “press”. Ali Samodi, a producer for Al Jazeera who was shot in the back, told the Guardian from his hospital bed that contrary to claims made by Israeli officials, there were no gunmen standing near the journalists when they were targeted.
“There were no fighters around, no civilians, nothing. Just the Israeli soldiers and the press. There were many bullets. After I was hit and Shireen was killed, they just kept shooting,” he said.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) initially said its troops shot back after coming under “massive fire” from militants in Jenin in the northern West Bank. The town is a historical flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the IDF has been conducting near-daily raids there in the wake of a recent wave of terrorist attacks against Israelis, which have left 19 dead. Many of the perpetrators came from the Jenin area.
Israeli officials, including the prime minister, Naftali Bennett, initially insisted there was “a considerable chance that armed Palestinians, who fired wildly, were the ones who brought about the journalist’s unfortunate death.”
But later on Wednesday the Israeli military chief Lt Gen Aviv Kochavi and the defence minister, Benny Gantz, appeared to back away from those assertions. Gantz conceded it could have been “the Palestinians who shot her” or fire from “our side”, adding: “We are not sure how she was killed. We are investigating.”
The IDF circulated what it said was a video of militants in Jenin engaged in a gunfight on the morning Abu Aqleh was shot, in which they claimed to have hit a soldier.
The footage was challenged by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which visited the two locations and found from the GPS coordinates that it was impossible for the shooting depicted in the IDF-distributed video to be the same gunfire that hit Abu Aqleh and Samodi.
Israel has denied allegations from the Qatar-based Al Jazeera that the journalists were “intentionally targeted” and Abu Aqleh was “assassinated in cold blood”.
The correspondent’s death has led to grief and condemnation across the Palestinian territories and the Middle East. Abu Aqleh was a familiar face to millions, reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in often dangerous circumstances for Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel since 1997.
In an unusual move, considering Abu Aqleh’s reporting was often critical of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but in an indication of the respect for her across Palestinian society, a memorial service for the reporter was held at the Ramallah compound of PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, on Thursday morning.
Foreign diplomats, journalists, religious leaders and prominent Palestinian and Arab Israeli politicians were in attendance as Abbas vowed “this crime should not go unpunished,” adding that the PA held Israel “completely responsible” for her death and had “refused and rejected” an Israeli proposal for a joint investigation into the killing.
“We refused a joint investigation because [Israelis] are the criminals and we don’t trust them,” he said. “We will go to the international criminal court to uncover the truth.”
The ICC launched an investigation into possible Israeli war crimes over a year ago, although Israel has rejected the probe as biased.
Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior aide to Abbas, has rejected an Israeli request to conduct ballistic analysis on the bullet, saying the PA would conduct its own investigation and convey the results “with high transparency” to Abu Aqleh’s family, the US, Qatar and the public.
Bennett accused the Palestinians on Thursday of denying Israel “access to the basic findings required to get to the truth”. He called on the PA not to take “any steps to disrupt the investigation or to contaminate the investigation process”.
The EU has called for an independent inquiry while the US has demanded the killing be “transparently investigated” – calls echoed by the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet.
An initial autopsy and forensic examination were conducted in the West Bank city of Nablus hours after Abu Aqleh’s death, but no final conclusions have been disclosed.
The journalist’s funeral will take place on Friday at a Roman Catholic church in Jerusalem before she is buried in the family plot in the city’s Mount Zion cemetery.
“Shireen’s killing was a message to the Palestinian people to try and kill our spirit,” said Mufaz Jaba, 38, who attended the memorial procession in Ramallah. “Instead it’s the opposite. Her death has helped unite Palestinian society and reminded the world of how important the Palestinian cause is,” he said.