TEL AVIV // Thousands lined the streets of East Jerusalem yesterday amid growing anger over the death of a Palestinian serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail.
Crowds greeted the body of Mai-sara Abu Hamdiyeh, who died on Tuesday after a battle with throat cancer, in a silent show of respect as it arrived in the city for a post-mortem examination.
Palestinian leaders including Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, have accused Israel of failing to provide the sick inmate with adequate medical treatment.
As many as 4,600 Palestinians are in Israeli jails and their imprisonment is a grievance that galvanises Palestinians as few others connected to the Israeli occupation do.
That anger was on show yesterday as thousands took part in a general strike to protest over the death of Abu Hamdiyeh, 63.
Shops, offices and schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip closed, and most Palestinians in at least four Israeli jails refused to accept food, the Israel Prison Service said.
Youths and Israeli security forces clashed for the second day in Abu Hamdiyeh's hometown of Hebron, where he is expected to be buried today, the Israeli army said.
The day of protest came after the heaviest exchange of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since they agreed to an internationally brokered ceasefire in November last year.
Several rockets were launched into southern Israel and Israeli aircraft responded by bombing targets in the Gaza Strip.
The general strike was observed in West Bank cities and towns including Hebron and Nablus, as well as in East Jerusalem and in parts of the Gaza Strip.
After Abu Hamdiyeh's death early on Tuesday the prisoners called for a three-day hunger strike and protested by slamming on the doors, scattering trash in several security blocks and throwing objects at guards, who responded with tear gas.
As an ambulance brought his body to Al Quds University in annexed East Jerusalem, thousands watched silently, some waving Palestinian flags, others holding up the yellow flag of Mr Abbas's Fatah movement. His body was taken out of the ambulance wrapped in the red, white, black and green of the Palestinian flag.
The fury over Abu Hamdiyeh's death is expected to add further friction between Israel and the Palestinians, and cloud US efforts to reignite the deadlocked peace process days before the second visit in two weeks to the region by John Kerry, US secretary of state.
Mr Kerry is due in Israel on Saturday and is expected to hold talks in Jerusalem with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and in Jordan with Mr Abbas.
The protests may also increase ahead of the Palestinian Prisoners Day on April 17, which was last year marked by hunger strikes and demonstrations.
Some analysts said yesterday that anger over the imprisonment of Palestinians in Israel was one of the only issues uniting Palestinians and might spur further unrest in the West Bank.
"The prisoner question is the consciousness of society," said Mahdi Abdel Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem.
"There is no Palestinian family that doesn't have even indirect involvement with the prisoner question, whether through family members, relatives or neighbours. This could shake the Israeli military occupation over certain areas of the West Bank."
Mr Abdel Hadi said Mr Abbas would probably increase his bid to rally Palestinians around anger over prisoners' jail conditions to try to bolster popular support for his leadership.
That support has plunged amid discontent over his inability to deliver statehood and persuade Israel to significantly ease its restrictions in the West Bank.
Israel has rejected claims of medical negligence tied to the death of Abu Hamdiyeh, who was arrested in 2002 and later sentenced to life imprisonment for his involvement in a foiled suicide bombing attempt at a Jerusalem cafe.
Prison officials this week also said they had started the process of granting him an early release but had failed to approve the move before he died.
Abu Hamdiyeh was the second Palestinian inmate to die in Israeli jails in less than two months. In February, the death of Arafat Jaradat, 30, in Israel's Megiddo prison, also sparked outrage.
While Israel claimed Jaradat appeared to have died of cardiac arrest, Palestinian officials had charged that he may have died of complications from torture after an interrogation and had called for an international inquiry.
Abu Hamdiyeh, a father of four, had been diagnosed with cancer at least two months ago but Israel did not provide him with proper treatment, the Palestinian Authority's prisoner ministry said on Tuesday.
It said he had been transferred to a hospital only three days before he died, after it was concluded that his condition was terminal, and that he had been chained to his hospital bed when he had died.
Yesterday, an initial examination of Abu Hamdiyeh's body in Israel's Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, in the presence of a Palestinian observer, showed he had died of cancer complications, Israeli media reported.
The reports, which cited unidentified Israeli officials, also said he had been a "heavy smoker".
* with reporting by Agence France-Presse