A senior Palestinian official died Wednesday after a confrontation with Israeli troops who were blocking a demonstration in the West Bank, sharply raising tensions between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Ziad Abu Ain, 55, a firebrand leader of the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the official in charge of protest activities against the Israeli settlements and the separation barrier in the West Bank, collapsed with apparent chest pain after scuffling with troops who broke up a march near a Jewish settlement outpost.
He died en route to a hospital in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters.
Abbas accused Israel of a “barbaric act” and Palestinian officials warned of grave consequences – including a possible halt to security cooperation with Israel – prompting attempts at damage control by the Israelis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced that he’d sent a message to the Palestinian Authority through a personal emissary that Israel would investigate the incident.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon expressed regret over the death, adding that “security stability is important to both sides and we will continue coordination with the Palestinian Authority.”
The cause of death wasn’t immediately clear, and Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed on a joint autopsy by Jordanian and Israeli pathologists, the Israeli army said. Israeli officials also offered to conduct a joint investigation of the incident with the Palestinians.
But with peace talks suspended and tensions running high after a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israelis in recent weeks, Abu Ain’s death threatened to cause a further deterioration in relations.
Abbas said in a statement that Palestinians could “not pass over in silence or accept” Abu Ain’s “martyrdom,” adding that “the necessary measures” would be taken once the incident had been investigated. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, warned that “this new assassination will have severe consequences.”
Meeting later with top Palestinian officials, Abbas said “all options were open” for a response. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Abbas, said in a radio interview that possibly suspending security cooperation was high on the agenda.
The incident near the village of Turmus Aya, north of Ramallah, began like many confrontations between Israeli forces and Palestinians in the West Bank. The demonstrators, carrying Palestinian flags and olive saplings, marched with the aim of planting the trees on land adjacent to an unauthorized Jewish settlement outpost.
Built without government permission on land claimed by Palestinians, the outpost, named Adei Ad, has been the scene of repeated confrontations between settlers and neighboring villagers, who’ve complained of damage to their olive groves and theft of their harvest.
To prevent clashes, the Israeli army has barred Palestinian access to farmland adjacent to the enclave.
Wednesday’s attempt by the marchers to plant trees near the outpost was repelled with tear gas and stun grenades, witnesses said, and troops later blocked the demonstrators from advancing.
“Without a single stone thrown and no violence, the army began shooting gas and stun grenades at the marchers,” Reut Mor, a participant from the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, told Israel Radio. The army said it had used crowd-control weapons to disperse “approximately 200 rioters.”
Video footage from the scene showed Abu Ain scuffling with an Israeli border policeman, who grabbed his neck and shoved him in the chest.
After the altercation, Abu Ain told reporters that the soldiers had attacked a peaceful demonstration. “They assaulted and hit me,” he said. “But this fascist occupation will pass.”
Seated later on the ground, Abu Ain held his hand to his chest, then appeared to lose consciousness. After an Israeli army medic tried to give him first aid, he was carried to a Palestinian ambulance.
In Washington, the State Department called for “a swift and transparent investigation” of the incident. Similar calls were made by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who said reports of excessive use of force by Israeli troops were “extremely worrying.”
A former prisoner, Abu Ain was extradited from the United States to Israel and sentenced in 1982 to life imprisonment for a 1979 bombing that killed two teenagers in the northern Israeli city of Tiberias. He denied the charges, saying they’d been based on extorted confessions. In 1985, he was released in a prisoner exchange.