x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Palestinian funerals draw thousands in tense West Bank

Thousands of mourners turn out for the funerals of three Palestinians, including two teenagers killed by Israeli army gunfire in some of the worst violence in the occupied West Bank in years.

The mother (second from left) of Naji Balbisi, a 19-year-old Palestinian shot by Israeli troops, mourns with other relatives during his funeral in the West Bank town of Anabta.
The mother (second from left) of Naji Balbisi, a 19-year-old Palestinian shot by Israeli troops, mourns with other relatives during his funeral in the West Bank town of Anabta.

ANABTA, West Bank // Thousands of mourners turned out yesterday for the funerals of three Palestinians, including two teenagers killed by Israeli army gunfire in some of the worst violence in the occupied West Bank in years.

In Gaza, militants fired a rocket that landed in southern Israel, causing no casualties.

The unrest has raised tensions between Israel and the Palestinians after days of West Bank clashes and rocket fire into southern Israel, prompting the first Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip since a ceasefire was reached last November. Israel vowed to respond harshly to further attacks from Gaza.

The upsurge in unrest was triggered on Tuesday by the death of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, a 64-year-old prisoner serving a life term in an Israeli jail and suffering from cancer.

Palestinian officials accused Israel of delaying treatment for Abu Hamdiyeh and gave him full military honours at his in Hebron, where masked gunmen fired into the air as his body arrived at a mosque with thousands of people waited outside.

In disturbances that followed his death, four Palestinian youths threw firebombs at an Israeli checkpoint near Tulkarm in the northern West Bank on Wednesday, the army said.

Soldiers returned fire and killed two teenagers from the nearby town of Anabta - Amer Nassar, 17, and Naji Belbisi, 18.

Hundreds of people participated in the funeral of two youths in Tulkarm yesterday. The bodies, their blood-stained faces clearly visible, were carried on stretchers through the packed streets of Anabta, held aloft by uniformed members of the Palestinian security forces.

"O martyrs rest, rest. We will continue the struggle," the crowds chanted as the lifeless teenagers passed by.

After their funeral, dozens of Palestinian riot police prevented youths with rocks and petrol bombs from reaching the Israeli watchtower near where Nassar and Belbisi were killed.

Masked protesters blocked a main road into the nearby city of Nablus and threw stones at an Israeli checkpoint. After Abu Hamdiyeh's funeral in Hebron, scores of youths clashed with Israeli forces, causing several light injuries.

Israeli officials urged Palestinian leaders to push for calm, and dismissed suggestions that a third uprising, or intifada, was brewing in the West Bank - territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which is now home to more than 340,000 Jewish settlers.

"There are no powers there pushing for a third intifada or general uprising," senior defence official Amos Gilad told Israel Radio.

Underscoring the potential for more violence, the Israeli army said that for a third straight day, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck southern Israel yesterday. No casualties or damage were reported.

Following initial rocket fire on Tuesday, Israeli jets carried out their first air strike on Gaza since a truce ended several days of fighting in November.

An Al Qaeda-linked group, Magles Shoura al-Mujahadeen, claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Tuesday and Wednesday, saying it was responding to the death of Hamdiyeh.

Israel says Gaza's Hamas rulers bear overall responsibility for any rocket fire and has urged Egypt, which helped broker the November truce, to use its influence with the Islamist group.

"The Egyptians are very active. Dialogue with them is constant and their interest is in keeping stability and preventing firing, violence and terrorism," Mr Gilad said.

For the second time this year, the death of a Palestinian prisoner has sparked widespread anti-Israeli disturbances.

In February, Arafat Jaradat, 30, died after an interrogation session. Palestinian officials said he had been tortured, an allegation Israel denied.

Palestinians say Abu Hamdiyeh complained of feeling sick in August, but was only discovered to be suffering from cancer in January. They say he did not receive adequate treatment and should have been released because of the gravity of the illness.

Israel said Abu Hamdiyeh, serving a life term for attempted murder after sending a suicide bomber to a Jerusalem cafe, was a heavy smoker and had received adequate care.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Israeli forces had killed nine Palestinians, most of them in clashes in the West Bank, so far this year, compared with three in the same period in 2012.

* Reuters and Associated Press