A masked Palestinian throws back a gas canister previously shot by Israeli soldiers during a protest outside Ofer Prison near Ramallah in support of Palestinian prisoners last Tuesday (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Thousands of Palestinians have taken to the streets of the West Bank and Jerusalem over the past week, positioning themselves opposite Israeli Defense Forces troops to protest the continued incarceration of Palestinian security prisoners sitting in Israeli jail.
The escalation in protests - some of which have turned violent - has some experts asking if the governing Palestinian Authority is encouraging its youths to launch a new uprising, or intifada, against Israel.
On Thursday, a Times of Israel article had this in its headline: “Israeli experts see a guiding hand behind the escalating West Bank demonstrations; Prisoner protests mark PA effort to start a ‘popular intifada.’”
Veteran Palestinian-affairs analyst Khaled Abu Toameh believes the riots are being orchestrated by Palestinian officials with the aim of gaining President Barack Obama’s attention. He writes:
There are many signs that the Palestinian Authority is seeking to escalate tensions in the West Bank ahead of US President Barack Obama's visit to the region next month.
Although the Palestinian Authority probably does not want an all-out confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis at this stage, some Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah believe that a "mini-intifada" would serve the Palestinians' interests, especially on the eve of Obama's visit.
The officials hope that scenes of daily clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in the West Bank will prompt Obama to exert pressure on the Israeli government to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinian Authority.
This is why the Palestinian Authority leadership has been encouraging its constituents lately to wage a "popular intifada" against Israel, each time finding another excuse to initiate confrontations between Palestinians and Israel.
Now the Palestinian Authority is using the issue of Palestinian prisoners who are on hunger strike in Israeli prisons as an excuse to call for street protests and clashes with the Israel Defense Forces.
Four Palestinian prisoners are staging a long-term hunger strike, while 3,000 other prisoners began a one-day hunger strike Sunday to protest the death of inmate Arafat Shalish Shahin Jaradat who died in Israel’s Meggido Prison on Saturday of a heart attack, according to an Israel Prison Services spokeswoman. He was not one of those taking part in the earlier hunger strike.
The prisoner who has been on hunger strike the longest, Samer Issawi, was released early from prison in 2011 as part of Israel’s deal with Hamas to release kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Issawi was serving a 26-year sentence for various violent crimes including firing an AK-47 at an Israeli bus, firing at an Israeli car and making pipe bombs that were subsequently used in terrorist attacks. He was re-arrested for violating the terms of his release and has not eaten for more than 200 days.
Evidence of the Palestinian Authority’s guiding hand in the unrest includes the participation in a demonstration on Wednesday by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Additionally, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised both the protests and Issawi’s hunger strike. Abbas called it “an honorable example of our people’s struggle for freedom and independence.”
Fueling the flames, more clashes were reported on Saturday when Jewish settlers shot two Palestinians in the northern West Bank village of Kusra, according to the Associated Press, quoting Israeli officials and Palestinian residents.
The AP reports that a 24-year-old and a 14-year-old were wounded by the gunfire. The Palestinians and Israelis provided conflicting descriptions about who started the incident, with each side blaming the other. Here is some of the clashes in Kusra from the Tazpit News Agency:
On Friday, hundreds of Palestinians threw rocks at soldiers in various parts of the West Bank including in the volatile city of Hebron, where soldiers responded with tear gas.
In Jerusalem, dozens of Palestinians threw rocks after Friday prayers on the Temple Mount – known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary. Police responded with stun grenades, according to the AP.
Non-governmental organizations say there are more than 4,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. The Palestinian Authority dedicates six percent of its budget to paying salaries to terrorists serving time in Israeli jails as well as providing financial support for families of suicide bombers.
In 2011, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who took part in one of the demonstrations tripled the monthly pay for the inmates.
Kadoura Fares who runs the Palestinian Prisoners Club, an NGO, tells The Times of Israel he doesn’t believe the Palestinians want a third intifada, but that the violence could spin out of control.
“Sometimes the fire starts out small and expands to a large inferno,” he said, adding “If one of the prisoners dies, spirits will flare, Israeli soldiers will shoot at demonstrators, and things will get out of hand.”
This report from Iran's PressTV provides the Palestinian perspective. Note that the reporter twice compares the recent escalation to the first two intifadas or uprisings against Israel: