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West Bank Funerals Become Displays of Palestinian Defiance

JERUSALEM – The funeral of a Palestinian prisoner who died of cancer in Israeli custody set off displays of angry defiance on Thursday in the West Bank city of Hebron. Masked gunmen loyal to the Palestinian president fired into the air to underscore calls for vengeance, and clashes broke out between Israeli soldiers and youths burning tires and hurling stones.


Farther north, near the city of Tulkarm, the burial of two other Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli forces late on Wednesday also became a rallying point for mourners calling for continued resistance against Israeli occupation.


Unrest in the West Bank, which has been simmering for several months, has raised the specter of a wider explosion of violence with some Palestinians in Hebron calling for a new uprising to liberate Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The charged atmosphere did not bode well for diplomacy, with Secretary of State John Kerry expected in the region next week in part to try to find a formula to restart peace negotiations.


The Palestinian leadership accused Israel of harming the American effort.

“This escalation proves that the Israeli government only looks at reality through brute power, settlement activities and Judaization,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement.


Thousands in Hebron attended the funeral of the prisoner, Maysara Abu Hamdiya, 64, who died of cancer that, according to an Israeli autopsy, began in the vocal cords and had spread to the lungs, neck, chest, liver, spine and ribs. The Palestinians have accused the Israeli authorities of deliberately delaying his diagnosis and treatment. The Israel prison service said a committee would examine the circumstances of his death.


A retired general in the Palestinian Authority security services, Mr. Hamdiya was buried with military honors. He was detained by Israel in 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising, and was serving a life term for attempted murder for his involvement in a failed suicide bombing in a Jerusalem cafe.


The thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails hold a hallowed place in Palestinian society as heroic fighters for the cause, and Mr. Hamdiya’s death has stirred outrage. Mr. Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, have been among Palestinians accusing Israeli of embracing a policy of medical negligence. The Palestinian Authority’s minister of prisoner affairs, Issa Qaraqe, attended Mr. Hamdiya’s funeral along with many local dignitaries.

Mr. Hamdiya’s hometown, Hebron, in the southern West Bank, is notoriously volatile, with a few hundred Jewish settlers living amid about 170,000 Palestinians.


His death appeared to have unified the deeply divided Palestinians, at least temporarily. Flags of all the rival political and militant factions were raised in the crowds, including those of Fatah, the mainstream secularist party led by Mr. Abbas, and its rivals, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

With Palestinians in the city on a general strike, dozens of masked militiamen of Fatah’s Al Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade, who have mostly lain low in recent years, attended the funeral.

In a speech to the crowd, a spokesman for the group said, “We will not allow the Israelis to kill our people, especially the prisoners.”


He added, “We are calling on President Abbas to give us a green light to react to what happened to Maysara Abu Hamdiya.”


The Israeli military reported groups of stone-throwing Palestinians on the main road leading to Hebron and at another location in the northern West Bank.

Mr. Hamdiya’s death was also the apparent cause of a flare-up of violence across the Israel-Gaza border this week. A small Islamic extremist group fired rockets into southern Israel, saying it was acting in support of the Palestinian prisoners, and Israel retaliated late Tuesday night with an airstrike in Gaza, its first since a cease-fire that ended eight days of cross-border fighting in November. That front appeared to have largely quieted by Thursday.

But the potential for confrontation in the West Bank could be seen late Wednesday when youths protesting the death of the prisoner clashed with soldiers at an Israeli army post near the West Bank city of Tulkarm. The Israeli military said that the youths were hurling firebombs at the soldiers, who responded with live fire. Amer Nassar, 17, was killed on the spot. The body of Naji Balbisi, 18, was found in the early hours of the morning.


Thabet Amal, the mayor of Anabta, the village near Tulkarm where the youths lived, told the official Voice of Palestine radio that both had been shot in the chest. The Israeli military said it was investigating the episode.


Nayef Hashlamoun contributed reporting from Hebron, West Bank.