Israel braces for unrest as Palestinians mourn official

In response to the death of Ziad Abu Ein, PA announces a freeze on security cooperation with Israel

Palestinian security members drive with the coffin of senior Palestinian official Ziad Abu Ein during his funeral in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 11, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ AHMAD GHARABLI)
Palestinian security members drive with the coffin of senior Palestinian official Ziad Abu Ein during his funeral in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 11, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ AHMAD GHARABLI)

Thousands of Palestinians gathered Thursday to mourn a senior official who died in a confrontation with Israeli troops, as the army sent reinforcements to the West Bank and braced for unrest.

The Palestinian leadership accused Israel of killing of 55-year-old Ziad Abu Ein, as tensions threatened to boil over into another round of violence in the territories.

Officials and onlookers streamed into the Ramallah headquarters of President Mahmoud Abbas for the funeral procession to a nearby cemetery, an AFP correspondent said.

Uniformed Palestinians carried Abu Ein‘s coffin, draped in a Palestinian flag, into the courtyard, as nationalist songs blared and mourners chanted “Revenge!” and “Your blood will not be spilled in vain!”

The coffin was lowered carefully into the ground at a cemetery in Al-Bireh, on the outskirts of Ramallah.

Schools were closed in a day of mourning and posters of Abu Ein were plastered on walls throughout the West Bank city.

A short distance away, additional Israeli troops and border guards were deployed in anticipation of clashes with mourners and protesters, an army spokeswoman said, especially given the cemetery’s proximity to the Jewish settlement of Psagot.

There were no immediate reports of violence.

Abu Ein died Wednesday after a confrontation with Israeli soldiers during a protest march against settlements by roughly 300 Palestinians who intended to plant olive trees as a symbolic act, an AFP photographer said.

Troops fired tear gas, three soldiers grabbed Abu Ein and he was struck in the chest during the confrontation, Palestinian witnesses said. Some reports said he was struck with a rifle butt by a soldier, an allegation denied by an Israeli eyewitness. Videos circulating online showed the soldiers pushing Abu Ein firmly in the chest and neck.

He collapsed and was treated by an Israeli army doctor, but died later in hospital.

 Israel ‘fully responsible’

“After hearing the results of the post-mortem, the Palestinian government holds Israel fully responsible for the killing of Ziad Abu Ein,” government spokesman Ihab Bseiso told reporters in Ramallah on Thursday.

A Palestinian minister said the post-mortem, which was carried out by a Palestinian, an Israeli and Jordanian doctors, had shown that Abu Ein was killed by the actions of Israeli troops.

“The reason for the death of Abu Ein was his being hit by (Israeli) occupation troops and because of the heavy use of tear gas,” Palestinian civil affairs minister Hussein al-Sheikh told AFP.

Sheikh said Israeli forces had prevented Abu Ein from getting to a hospital quickly enough to save his life.

Israel’s health ministry said the death was caused by a “blockage of the coronary artery” which “could have been caused by stress,” adding that Abu Ein suffered from poor health including heart disease.

On Thursday, a top aide to Abbas said that the incident prompted the Palestinian Authority to freeze its security cooperation with Israel.

Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator in languishing peace talks with Israel, confirmed the move, and said that the PA would send out an official statement on halting cooperation in the coming hours and added that Ramallah would also push forward with a number of unilateral diplomatic initiatives.

High tension

Israel urged calm, with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon expressing regret for the death and saying a military inquiry had been launched.

“Security stability is important for both sides,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a message through one of his aides to Abbas in which he “pointed to the need to calm the situation and act responsibly,” his office said.

The death of Abu Ein, who was a former PA deputy minister and was responsible for dealing with the settlement issue, follows months of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and a wave of unrest in the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem.

Israelis are on edge after “hit-and-run” car terror attacks by Palestinians that killed five people, as well as a terrrorist assault last month that saw two Palestinians burst into a Jerusalem synagogue, leaving four worshipers and a policeman dead.

The tensions have been heightened by Israeli announcements of new settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The settlements issue scuppered peace talks in April after nine months of fruitless Israeli-Palestinian meetings that US Secretary of State John Kerry worked hard to revive.

In the absence of talks, the Palestinians are pushing a UN Security Council resolution, which they hope will pass by the end of the year, giving Israel two years to withdraw from all territory captured in the 1967 war in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

If the United States vetoes it as expected, the Palestinian leadership says it will then move to sue Israel through the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.

Kerry is to travel to Rome on Sunday to meet Netanyahu and discuss the situation in the region.

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