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West Bank fury over prison 'torture death'

Feb. 25, 2013 at 3:43 PM   |   Comments

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- The Israeli-occupied West Bank seethed with fury Monday as a Palestinian who allegedly died under torture in an Israeli prison was buried. The tensions heightened fears of a third violent Palestinian uprising and harming flickering hopes long-stalled peace talks might resume.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians attended the military-style funeral of Arafat Jaradat amid gunfire and nationalist songs outside the southern West Bank city of Hebron, his hometown.

Jaradat's death Saturday in disputed circumstances in prison at Megiddo, the biblical Armageddon near Haifa, sparked riots across the West Bank over the weekend.

More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Meggido went on hunger strike and refused food for the second day Monday.

That sharpened tensions that have been steadily mounting for weeks amid attacks on Palestinians by Jewish settlers with little effort by Israel's army to prevent them and plans for Jewish settlement expansion.

"We're sitting on a barrel of dynamite," warned Kadoura Fares, a former minister in the Palestinian Administration and head of the Palestinian prisoners association. "It may very well be that Jaradat's death will turn out to have been the match that lit it."

Jaradat, a 30-year-old Hebronite, was arrested Feb. 18 for allegedly throwing stones and fire bombs at Israeli settlers and soldiers during a confrontation in the flashpoint city, where the presence of several hundred Jews living in a heavily guarded compound has long fueled unrest.

Israeli officials say he died of a heart attack during an interrogation. PA Minister for Prisoners Issa Qaraqea said Jaradat died as a result of torture.

The PA state pathologist attended Jaradat's post mortem. Based on his observations, Qaraqea said the dead man's body showed "marks of torture on the back, on the chest, a deep wound on the upper side of the shoulder, wounds alongside the spine and marks of torture underneath the skin."

Two of Jaradat's ribs had been fractured, he said.

Israel put its military and security forces on alert. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who's having difficult stitching together a coalition following Jan. 22 elections, held "security consultations."

But the only sign the Israelis were seeking to defuse the swelling crisis was an apparent effort to persuade the Palestinian leadership to intervene by pledging to release some $100 million in tax revenues from the West Bank.

The Israelis unilaterally blocked payment in January as a punishment for the Palestinians securing the United Nations' de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood in November, despite Israel's intense efforts to block that.

Under the circumstances, it's unlikely that the PA under President Mahmoud Abbas, who Netanyahu has declared was "no peace partner," would respond, even though he badly needs the money to pay public sector salaries.

Jaradat's death behind bars has, if nothing else, concentrated attention on the plight of some 4,700 Palestinians held by Israel. Some are held on specific charges of attacking Israelis, but most are under Israeli "administrative detention," without charge or trial, which allows them to be held indefinitely.

Many have been on hunger strike for several weeks, after having participated in earlier hunger strikes demanding better conditions, an end to solitary confinement and access to lawyers.

The Israelis have avoided any deaths by prisoners with a series of concessions, mainly sentencing hunger strikers to token prison terms after which they must be released.

But if any hunger striker dies, the Israelis face an avalanche of trouble by Palestinians who see the prison protesters as heroes in the struggle for a Palestinian state and an end to Israel's 46-year occupation.

All of this is taking place in advance of U.S. President Barack Obama's scheduled visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan next month.

Given Obama's strained relations with Netanyahu, primarily over the hawkish Israeli leader's refusal to get peace talks going again, and ordering Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, the visit could be a fraught one.

"You see things are growing and getting bigger and bigger," cautioned Sharwan Jabarin, head of the Palestinians' Al-Haq human rights organization. "The real concern is to have another Jaradat die in prison."

The Palestinians have staged two uprisings against Israeli occupation.

In 1987-93, hundreds of Palestinians were killed. In the second, in 2000-04, Israel was battered by repeated suicide bombings. Around 1,000 Israelis were killed, along with 4,500 Palestinians, and tens of thousands imprisoned.

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