The Palestinian Authority is not behind the recent West Bank demonstrations and is not interested in an escalation of the situation ahead of the March 20 visit by US President Barack Obama, chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Tuesday.
At the same time, Israel believes the worst of the violence in the West Bank has passed, after days of warnings by officials that the protests could turn into a third intifada, or mass uprising. Some Israeli experts have warned that the PA is deliberately fostering protests over the issue of Palestinian security prisoners, some of whom have been hunger-striking.
Erekat told Israel Radio that the PA was not involved in organizing demonstrations and said that “the Palestinian leadership wants to give the new administration in the United States every possible opportunity to make peace, and the last thing we want is to see our children die.”
He said that the PA is attempting to defuse the recent wave of violent clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and IDF forces, but said that “you can’t control the people by remote control.” Erekat called for a release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel jails as a measure to reduce tensions.
A statement from the Palestinian Authority president’s office said President Mahmoud Abbas instructed Palestinian security officials Monday night to preserve security and order in the West Bank, but placed the blame on Israel for “dragging the area into violence and chaos.”
Earlier Monday, in a speech in Ramallah, Abbas accused Israel of killing Palestinian children. On Sunday, the PA publicly charged that Israel had tortured Arafat Jaradat, 30, to death. Jaradat, who was arrested for stone-throwing, died in Meggido Prison on Saturday of heart failure, Israel said.
Adnan Damiri, a spokesman of the Palestinian security apparatus, said Palestinian officials were committed to preventing fighting, saying that his forces had recently detained members of the militant Hamas group who were planning “violent confrontations.”
“The only one(s) seeking violence in West Bank is Netanyahu and Hamas, but we will not be dragged to that,” said Damiri. “Our struggle will always be peaceful.”
The clashes come less than four weeks before Obama is scheduled to arrive in Israel and the West Bank, his first presidential visit to the region. US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday the US has asked Israeli and Palestinian officials to exercise “maximum restraint” at this time of high tension in the West Bank.
Also on Tuesday, a military source told Maariv that the IDF believes the wave of clashes peaked with the funeral of Jaradat.
The funeral was attended by at least 10,000 people, and marked a show of force by Fatah; masked Fatah gunmen fired volleys of gunfire into the air from rooftops as the funeral proceeded.
The Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade published a leaflet urging a harsh response against Israel for Jaradat’s death, but violence surrounding the funeral was markedly milder than the Israeli security forces had feared, with clashes at several locales but no reports of serious injury.
Tuesday saw a Grad rocket fired from the Gaza Strip at Ashkelon, marking the possible opening up of a second front with the Palestinians. There were no injuries, but some damage from the attack, which was the first since November.
AP contributed to this report.