The death of a Palestinian prisoner today – the second in just over a month – sparked a rare protest by Hamas's armed wing, rocket fire into Israel, and an outbreak of prisoner riots at several Israeli jails.
The incidents highlight not only mounting frustration over Israeli treatment of Palestinian prisoners but also the frailty of a November cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
"This is the result of Israeli actions," says Sahar, a veiled mother of six carrying a Kalashnikov at the Hamas-organized protest in Gaza tonight. "We will leave our children to defend our country against the occupation."
Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh, a Hamas supporter from the West Bank city of Hebron, was serving a life sentence after being convicted by Israel of attempted murder and membership in a terrorist organization when he died this morning. Palestinian officials blame Israel for medical neglect of Hamdiyeh, who was diagnosed with cancer.
"The death of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh shows the Israeli government's arrogance and intransigence over the prisoners," Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Ramallah. "We tried to get him released for treatment but the Israeli government refused to let him out, which led to his death."
Israeli prison authorities said that a process to secure Mr. Abu Hamdiyeh's release on compassionate grounds was initiated after his diagnosis in February but not completed in time.
The death of fellow Hebron local Arafat Jaradat last month, which Palestinian officials blamed on Israeli torture, brought thousands to the streets of Hebron vowing a third intifada. Israel denied any mistreatment.
Today several hundred Palestinians reportedly protested in Hebron, while prisoners rioted at four Israeli jails and declared a three-day hunger strike. In the northern Gaza Strip this afternoon, Hamas drove a large van through the streets with loudspeakers announcing the protest tonight.
Supporters gathered at a local mosque at dusk, armed gunmen from the Qassam Brigades spilling out of at least five pick-up trucks to kick off the march in a rare public appearance since the November cease-fire.
They were followed by several thousand supporters on foot, from elderly men limping along to bands of rowdy children. With the death of Hamdiyeh and Jaradat and several prominent Palestinian prisoners on very prolonged hunger strikes, the prisoner issue has garnered the attention of both Fatah and Hamas officials in recent months.
Supporters of both factions are particularly irritated that Israel has rearrested prisoners like Jaradat who were released as part of the prisoner swap to secure the release in 2011 of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped and held in Gaza for several years.
"They're destroying all their agreements they already agreed upon," said Abu Fais, a middle-aged man in a dress shirt and slacks at the Hamas protest tonight, before he rejoined the chanting crowd as it made its way through Gaza's streets.