Hundreds attend funeral of Sheikh Halabi against health guidelines

Body stolen from Safed hospital by community activists

Druze-Israelis protest the Nation-State Law (photo credit: REUTERS)
Druze-Israelis protest the Nation-State Law
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Hundreds of members of the Druze community gathered on Saturday morning in Majdal Shams, north of the Golan Heights, for a mass funeral for Sheikh Abu Zain al-Din Hassan Halabi.
The event violated coronavirus restrictions and was held after the sheikh’s body was stolen from the Ziv Medical Center in Safed.
Halabi, an important spiritual leader and public figure in the Druze community living in Majdal Shams, died Friday. He had been combating the novel coronavirus.
“Everyone who attended the funeral should get tested in the next few days,” outgoing coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu said during a visit Saturday afternoon to Fureidis, an Arab town in the Haifa district. “It is infuriating to see this gathering in a city that is in a state of closure due to its high morbidity. I want to appeal to the Druze community, and especially to its leadership, starting today – throughout all Druze villages – increase coronavirus testing.”
He also called on Israel Police to increase enforcement among Arab society, even if it requires increased budget, and said that he fears the funeral could lead to further morbidity in Majdal Shams and the surrounding villages.
Shortly after Halabi died, a discussion was held regarding the funeral events. All professional bodies opposed the holding of the mass event requested in his community, because Majdal Shams is classified as an area with high morbidity or “red-zone” – a status that was extended by the government on Friday.  
After deliberations, officials decided that a restricted funeral would be held at the hospital until the following morning, when a larger service would be held at a soccer field in Majdal Shams, in coordination with the Home Front Command and Israel Police.
However, about 100 members of the town’s Druze community refused to accept the government’s compromise and came to Ziv, stealing the late sheikh’s body Friday night in order to bring it back to Majdal Shams to perform the mass funeral.
The Druze locals involved in the incident became angry with the hospital when they were told that the sheikh’s body would be wrapped in nylon, according to the procedure for transferring a dead COVID-19 patient who might still shed the virus and infect others. Unwilling to accept that, they took things into their own hands.  
A Yasam special riot police team, which was at the scene, failed to prevent them from entering the hospital grounds and taking the cadaver with them.
A source close to the incident told Walla News that “the police stood, crossing their arms, a few meters from the rioters, and although it is their job - did not intervene and even allowed the scandal to occur.”
The next day, Halabi’s body was placed in the municipal sports field in the heart of the village, and hundreds of people sat in chairs and in turn said goodbye to the coffin. Reports said that many more people watched the funeral outside the fence and from surrounding rooftops.
Despite being organized in conjunction with the relevant authorities, it was clearly against the guidelines.
PARTICIPANTS IN the funeral began to march from Mas’ade toward Majdal Shams. Though most of those participating in the funeral are from the town, some others reportedly live all around the Galilee region - leading officials to fear a potential outbreak, infecting members of the Druze community throughout the entire North.
Yesh Atid-Telem Druze MK Gadeer Mreeh strongly condemned the events at the hospital.
“This behavior does not befit the high status of the late sheikh’s distinguished discourse,” she said.
The sheikh’s family and Druze leadership renounced the kidnapping of the sheikh’s body and the mass gathering that followed in violation of coronavirus guidelines, and even issued a statement calling on the public to avoid attending the funeral in Majdal Shams.
Sheikh Mowafaq Tarīf, the spiritual leader of the Druze community, stressed that “the incident that took place at Ziv Hospital in Safed is not in the opinion of the leadership of the community and the family of the deceased, who had a senior religious status among the community and deserves all respect.”
Following the event and the circumstances that allowed it to take place, the Police issued a statement explaining that a designated committee will be established to examine the conduct of the involved parties during the kidnapping of the sheikh’s body.
The committee is also expected to reach conclusions for the appropriate way of handling similar situations in the future that involve the death of prominent public and religious figures during situations that prevent mass gatherings.
Dr. Salman Zarka, director of Ziv, congratulated the police for deciding to investigate the circumstances that led to the incident, and said that while he “understands the need to pay respects to the sheikh,” who he described as “a great leader,” he added that “nevertheless, I call on the sheikh’s family, the local residents and the entire Druze community to maintain social distancing guidelines, wear masks and prevent the infection of healthy people.”    
During his visit to Fureidis, Gamzu launched a program the Health Ministry is calling “Protect the Home” project (in Hebrew Magen Habayit) that is focused on supporting Arab society in its fight against the virus.
“This week will be dedicated to Arab society,” Gamzu said. “I want the whole Arab community to be tested this week… We need more tests, more investigations and more enforcement.”
At the same time, Ayam Saif, coronavirus project coordinator for Israel's Arab sector, said that weddings would need to be postponed.
“This is not the time,” Saif stressed. “Look what happened to Majdal Shams, which is back under lockdown.”