Violence reignites along Israel-Gaza border after Palestinian prisoner’s death


Palestinian protesters take cover behind old doors during clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron, on April 3, 2013. (DARREN WHITESIDE/Reuters)
April 3, 2013

The death of a Palestinian prisoner in Israeli custody triggered a flare-up of violence across the Israel-Gaza border early Wednesday, but calm later returned to the area as both sides appeared to be stepping back from further confrontation.

A rocket fired into Israel after the prisoner’s death Tuesday triggered an Israeli airstrike overnight. On Wednesday morning, two more rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip. One landed at the entrance to Sderot, an Israeli town near the Gaza border, and another in an open area nearby, causing no damage or casualties, a police spokesman said. Alarms forced residents to take cover as they headed to schools and work.

The Israeli airstrike was the first in the Gaza Strip since a cease-fire ended eight days of cross-border fighting in November.

An al-Qaeda-inspired group, the Mujaheddin Shura Council, said it had fired the latest rockets in support of Palestinian prisoners and in response to the death of the inmate, Maysara Abu Hamdiya. Palestinian officials accused the Israeli authorities of delaying treatment of the prisoner, who succumbed to cancer.

About 4,600 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails refused meals Wednesday after declaring a three-day hunger strike to protest the death of Abu Hamdiya, 63, who was given a life term for his role in a failed suicide bombing plot targeting Jerusalem, a spokeswoman for the Israel Prison Service said.

The Mujaheddin Shura Council said in its statement that one of its members was arrested after Tuesday’s rocket attack, suggesting that the authorities in Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, were working to prevent further attacks and maintain the cease-fire with Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement that Israel viewed Hamas as responsible for any firing from Gaza, adding, “We will absolutely not allow a routine of sporadic shooting at our citizens and forces.”

The chief Israeli army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said the military would not accept a return to the conditions that prevailed before its November offensive in Gaza, which was launched to halt repeated rocket fire. “The aim is to maintain quiet in the south of the country,” he said.

Although the exchanges of fire appeared to have stopped, the dispute over the death of the prisoner continued. The Palestinian Authority released an affidavit taken by a lawyer who visited Abu Hamdiya last month, citing a months-long delay in his referral for hospital examination and a lack of treatment for what was diagnosed in January as throat cancer, five months after the prisoner first complained of severe throat pain.

Israel Prison Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said she would not comment pending an internal review of the case.

The latest exchanges drew an expression of concern from Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. “The United Nations condemns the indiscriminate firing of rockets into civilian areas and calls on Israel to act with restraint,” Serry said in a statement, warning that the violence threatened to unravel the cease-fire.

Clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli troops also erupted in the West Bank, and a teenager was fatally shot near the town of Tulkarm. An army spokeswoman said soldiers in a post near an Israeli settlement opened fire after they were attacked with molotov cocktails, hitting one of the assailants. Israeli media said that the soldiers fired from a fortified guard tower and that the army was checking whether they had followed the rules of engagement.

Meanwhile, tensions heightened along Israel’s increasingly volatile frontier with Syria, whose civil war has threatened to spill over into the Israeli-held Golan Heights. On Tuesday night, an Israeli tank targeted a Syrian position after shots were fired at an Israeli border patrol, the army said. Earlier, a mortar shell landed in Israeli-held territory, according to the military.

Yaalon warned that Israel would respond to any shooting from Syrian territory, regardless of whether it was stray fire.

“The minute we identify the source of fire, we’ll destroy it without hesitation,” he said.

Islam Abdel Karim in Gaza contributed to this report.

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