Incident at journalist’s funeral was attack against St Joseph’s, hospital director says
by Dario Salvi

General Director Jamil Koussa talks about the hospital following the funeral of the al Jazeera journalist. In his view, the brutal attack by Israeli police was unjustified. The facility, which is open to patients from all religions, is a key part of the Palestinian healthcare system. It also takes in uninsured immigrants. The desire to uphold its mission remains.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Jerusalem’s St Joseph's Hospital has taken in sick people “from all religions”, providing medical care to everyone without distinctions, be they “Muslims, Christians and Jews” in accordance with the “mission of the Sisters of Saint Joseph". 

Then suddenly, during a dark page in the history of the never-ending dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, a Christian journalist, Shireen Abu-Akleh, was shot dead during a “brutal and unjustified” police raid, followed by the violence that broke out at her funeral.

Almost two weeks later, the image of all that is still etched in the mind of Jamil Koussa, general director of St Joseph’s Hospital.

“As a hospital, our only role was to receive the body and put it in a casket,” he told AsiaNews, but “we found ourselves surrounded by agents”.

The raid carried out by Israeli police sparked outrage, fuelling feelings of anger and frustration that already simmered among Palestinians over the journalist’s death.

Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, had strongly advised police not to take any action. What is more, evidence is mounting that the journalist was very likely shot by Israeli soldiers engaged in an operation in Jenin. 

The violence that accompanied her funeral sparked an unusually harsh response from the Churches of the Holy Land and the Latin Patriarch. 

“People were carrying flags and singing songs,” Koussa said. “We, as a hospital, spoke to the police chief, asking that the funeral take place in an ordinary, peaceful manner. But they said no and stormed the compound, beating people.”

“We didn’t expect such a harsh attitude,” he added. “We got the impression that the order to crack down” with truncheons, rubber bullets and tear gas ‘came from above”.

“One of our doctors was injured in the attack, which reached the emergency department, causing great confusion in all the other departments.”

Such behaviour was “unjustifiable because none of us wanted to cause mayhem or throw stones. Only two or three empty water bottles [were thrown] when police began indiscriminately beating those who were carrying the coffin. It was a show of force.!"

St Joseph's Hospital is in Sheikh Jarrah, a disputed neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Built in 1956 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition, it was a more modern facility that replaced the St Louis Hospital that found itself under Israeli control, on the other side of the 1949 armistice line.

Construction, which began in 1954, was completed in two years. Located in the northern part of the neighbourhood, it saw several controversial incidents in the past over questions of ownership involving Jewish settlers.

The hospital is part of the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network, which is part of the Palestinian health care system that covers East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but some patients come from the Gaza Strip.

Its funded largely by donors and the US government, but in 2018 then-President Donald Trump decided to cut US support for Palestinian medical facilities by US$ 20 million. 

With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, it was the first hospital in all of East Jerusalem to set up a unit dedicated exclusively to COVID-19 patients, a sign of its importance for the city and its resident.  

Its maternity ward is famous for helping future mothers of all faiths, without distinctions, a philosophy that still inspires the whole hospital. 

“At St Joseph's, we have many immigrants who arrive in Israel and Jerusalem without a legal permit nor medical insurance. We provide them with care and treatment, ensuring that all material and human resources are available to help as many people as possible, starting with the poorest.”

“The hospital is a point of reference for Jerusalem’s Arab population,” Koussa explains, especially since access to medical facilities is quite limited. St Joseph’s is also “known for its peaceful ambiance, for its openness to everyone, for its search for dialogue, for unity despite the differences among people of different religions.”

"What happened at Shireen's funeral has left its mark, but we are not afraid of more violence and shall pursue our mission. Still, many fear that something could happen [again] in Jerusalem, where tension remains high.”

Lastly, the general director of St Joseph’s has a final thought for the murdered journalist. “I knew her since she was eight years old. I was her gymnastics teacher at the school of the Sisters of the Rosary. She was a calm, creative, studious girl who was and will always be an example and point of reference. Even for the police who attacked us.”