Israeli troops dispersed crowds of stone-throwing demonstrators at several locations across the West Bank today as Palestinians took to the streets to protest the death of a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail.
The clashes escalated the most serious unrest between Palestinians and Israelis in months, both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, where a five-month-old truce appeared to be fraying. The violence threatened to complicate U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace mission to the region next week.
Israeli soldiers used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell crowds in Bethlehem, Hebron and in the northern West Bank, an army spokesman said, speaking anonymously in accordance with military regulations. Fanning the tensions were the deaths of two Palestinians who were shot dead by soldiers overnight. The military said they attacked an army outpost with firebombs.
The demonstrations were touched off by the death of a Palestinian prisoner earlier this week in an Israeli jail, where he was serving a life sentence for attempted murder in the failed bombing of a Jerusalem cafe in 2002.
Israel’s Health Ministry said Mysara Abu Hamdiya died from cancer complications. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed his death on Israeli medical negligence, a charge Israeli officials have denied. Today Abbas accused Israel of deliberately inciting violence.
“I used to read in the past in the Israeli press about the third uprising,” Abbas said in remarks broadcast on Palestinian television. “It seems that’s what Israel wants, for things to reach that point. They want to get out of their commitments that they have signed with us.”
Israeli prisons hold about 5,000 Palestinians, many of whom have gone on hunger strikes in protest.
The ferment in the West Bank has coincided with renewed violence along the border between Israel and the Hamas- controlled Gaza Strip. Rocket fire from Gaza provoked Israel this week to launch its first airstrike in the territory since a November military operation there designed to stop the attacks. The rocket fire continued today.
Israel, the U.S. and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization. The November violence killed 167 Palestinians and six Israelis, and more than 1,400 missile hit Israel during the fighting.
The new clashes could make things tougher for Kerry when he visits Israel and the West Bank next week in an attempt to revive stalled peace talks.
Kerry “is not planning to put a big plan on the table” during talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. “He’ll also be making clear that the parties themselves have to want to get back to the table, that this is a choice that they have to make.”
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been suspended since 2010, after Netanyahu declined to extend and expand a 10-month settlement construction slowdown. Abbas says he won’t return to the negotiating table without a complete construction freeze in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians see as the core of a future state that would also include Gaza.
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