Police were boosting their presence in Jerusalem ahead of Friday’s Muslim prayers in the city, as Israel braced for a harsh Palestinian response to the death of a senior Palestinian official in a clash with Israeli troops on Wednesday.
Despite the tense state, Israel said it would once again allow all worshipers to enter the Temple Mount’s al-Aqsa Mosque, as it has done in recent weeks in a bid to calm Palestinian spirits and build confidence.
Though the practice of augmenting security on Fridays has become routine over the past months, as Jewish-Arab tensions have flared in the capital as well as in the West Bank, fears of violence were this time exacerbated by the death of Ziad Abu Ein.
Abu Ein — who headed the Palestinian Authority government agency that lobbies against the security barrier and settlements — died Wednesday morning on the way to a Ramallah hospital after being involved in a scuffle with Israeli troops near Turmusaya, south of the Shiloh settlement in the northern West Bank.
Israeli officials have said a postmortem — attended by Palestinian and Jordanian physicians — showed Abu Ein died of a heart attack, possibly caused by the stress of the situation as well as a preexisting heart condition. Palestinians have disputed this claim, saying he died after being struck by soldiers and inhaling tear gas.
Whatever the case may be, the death of Abu Ein has enraged the PA and was a potentially perilous development following several months of Palestinian unrest, carrying with it the prospect of igniting the Arab street.
Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator in languishing peace talks with Israel, said Thursday the Palestinian Authority would freeze security cooperation with Israel in the wake of Abu Ein’s death.
“We see Israel as having complete responsibility for the murder of Ziad Abu Ein,” Erekat announced.
The PA issued a letter of complaint Wednesday to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, calling the official’s death “murder,” and appealed to the Security Council to publicly condemn the incident.
On Thursday, thousands of Palestinians gathered to mourn the senior official. Officers and onlookers streamed into the Ramallah headquarters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas for the funeral procession to a nearby cemetery.
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!”
Schools were closed in a day of mourning, and posters of Abu Ein were plastered on walls throughout the West Bank city.
A PA leadership meeting to decide on a diplomatic response to the incident, which was initially planned for Friday, has been postponed to Sunday — ostensibly to allow more time for deliberations.
Meanwhile, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said following a meeting Friday morning that Israel and the PA must work to renew peace negotiations between them, Israel Radio reported. The two leaders called on both sides to remove the obstacles to the resumption of talks.
The US and Britain on Thursday joined international calls for an investigation into Abu Ein’s death.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was “deeply concerned” by the death of Abu Ein and called for the Israeli investigation into the incident to be “swift, fair and transparent.”
UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he was shocked by the death of the official and called for a “swift and transparent” investigation, while appealing for calm.
Israel has urged calm, with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon expressing regret for the death and saying a military inquiry had been launched.
“Security stability is important for both sides,” he said.
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.
Abu Ein, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, was extradited from the US to Israel in 1981 for his role in orchestrating a terrorist bombing two years earlier that killed two Israeli teens. He was released during a 1985 prisoner swap that saw the release of three Israel Defense Forces soldiers captured in Lebanon. He also served as deputy minister for prisoner affairs.
The death of Abu Ein follows months of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and a wave of unrest in the West Bank and in Arab East Jerusalem.
Car attacks by Palestinians have killed five people in recent months. Last month two Palestinian terrorists entered a Jerusalem synagogue and attacked worshipers there with knives and a gun, leaving four worshipers and a policeman dead.
The tensions have been heightened by Israeli announcements of new construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The settlements issue was among the factors that 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.
AFP and Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.