Palestinian leader Ziad Abu Ein dies 'after being struck by Israeli soldiers' at tree planting protest against illegal settlements
President Mahmoud Abbas was under increasing pressure last night to respond sharply to the death of a senior Palestinian Authority official whom witnesses say was struck while Israeli troops broke up a protest march he was leading.
Ziad Abu Ein, 55, head of a commission in charge of coordinating opposition to Israeli settlements, became the highest-ranking Palestinian to die in confrontation with Israeli forces in recent years after he was pronounced dead in Ramallah Hospital where he was taken from the scene of the protest in nearby Turmus Aya.
He had been heading what participants said was a peaceful march by about 300 people. The group said they had planned to plant olive trees as a symbolic act of protest against illegal Israeli settlements.
The day's events began around mid-morning when several dozen Palestinians, including Mr Abu Ain, marched from the West Bank village of Turmus Aya toward an unauthorised Israeli settlement outpost, Adei-Ad.
Several dozen soldiers and members of the paramilitary border police blocked the marchers, firing tear gas and stun grenades, according to Palestinian witnesses and members of Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group that joined the protest.
Eventually, marchers and troops faced each other, scuffling and shouting.
Mr Abu Ein, who was at the forefront of the group, told reporters: "We came to our Palestinian land to plant some olive trees and they attacked us immediately. No-one threw a stone or attacked them, but this terrorist army is attacking us."
At one point a border policeman grabbed the Palestinian minister by the throat and pushed him, according to an Associated Press photographer. Other witnesses said a soldier also pushed a rifle butt into Mr Abu Ain's chest.
An AFP photographer on the scene said that after soldiers confronted the group, tear gas was fired. Three soldiers grabbed Mr Abu Ein and he was struck on the chest, the photographer said. A Reuters photographer at the scene said Mr Abu Ein was struck on the neck during an altercation with two soldiers.
Several minutes later, a pale-faced Mr Abu En was seen sitting on the ground, then leaning back against a large rock, his right hand clutching his heart. A bystander tried to help him, patting his back and getting him to sit up, before he slumped backward.
The Israeli military said that about 200 "rioters" had gathered in Turmus Aya and that troops prevented them from reaching Adei-Ad, using "riot dispersal means". That typically means tear gas and stun grenades.
Yesh Din, the Israeli rights group, said the Palestinian protest had been peaceful. A lawyerfor the group, Shlomy Zachary, "reported to a senior army official that IDF soldiers were exercising extensive force against Palestinian civilians without any justification", the group said.
Earlier yesterday, Yesh Din appealed to Israel's Supreme Court on behalf of four villages surrounding Adei-Ad, demanding that the military enforce long-standing orders to dismantle such unauthorized settlements. Adei-Ad is one of dozens of such outposts set up by settlers across the West Bank without government authorisation, though a number have been retroactively legalised.
Reut Mor, spokeswoman for Yesh Din, who was present at the march, said: “There was no provocation or stone-throwing, no violence by the protesters. Straight away the soldiers used tear gas and stun grenades on people walking with olive trees.”
The international community considers all settlements, including those sanctioned by the government, to be illegal. The settlements are built on occupied lands the Palestinian seek for a future state.
Meanwhile, a Palestinian activist said he hoped the #ICantBreathe hashtag would draw more attention to Mr Abu Ain's death. "What is happening here is no different from the discrimination against blacks in America," said Mahmoud Hreidat.
The death ignites further tensions during a time when Israeli-Palestinian ties are particularly fraught.
This is due to Muslim perceptions of an Israeli threat to al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site; a wave of Palestinian violence against Israelis that culminated in an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, and the breakdown of the peace process and current Palestinian efforts to secure a UN security resolution on ending Israel’s hold on occupied territories. The death was termed a “murder” and an “assassination” by Palestinian officials.
This calls for a political reply equal to the magnitude of the crime itself,” said Qais Abdul Karim, a Palestinian legislator and Abbas ally before a leadership meeting scheduled for last night to weigh responses. He said the main proposal that would be discussed was “to speed up accession of Palestine to international conventions and organisations” including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Israel is doggedly opposed to such accession, fearing the Palestinians will use the ICC to prosecute alleged Israeli war crimes.
Jibril Rajoub, a leader in Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement called for the suspension of the security cooperation between Palestinian forces and the Israeli army that has been responsible for thwarting attacks on Israeli targets.
Mr Abbas declared three days of mourning and said the death was a result of a “savage attack”.
Mr Abu Ein is to be buried today after an autopsy. The Israeli army released a statement saying that the Palestinians had agreed to the participation of an Israeli pathologist, but there was no confirmation of this from the Palestinian Authority. “We will take the required and necessary steps after knowing the results of the investigation,” Mr Abbas said. An Israeli official said: ‘’We express regret at the death of anyone and we have offered to conduct a joint investigation.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an investigation into the death, and urged “all sides to exercise maximum restraint and avoid escalation”.
Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Rome on Sunday for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on developments in Israel and the West Bank.
The meeting comes as Jordan pushes to begin talks with United Nations Security Council members on Palestinian and European proposals for a draft resolution to end the Middle East conflict. Jordan circulated a Palestinian-drafted resolution to the 15-member council last month calling for Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory to end by November 2016.
In September UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, condemned the illegal settlements after Israel announced plans to seize 990 acres of Palestinian land near Gvaot to create new city.
"Our position on settlements is clear," Hammond said. "They are illegal under international law, present an obstacle to peace and take us further away from a two-state solution at a time when negotiations to achieve this objective urgently need to be resumed."
Belfast Telegraph Digital