Could official's death mean the end of Palestinian security ties with Israel?

Ziad Abu Ein died after clashing with Israeli forces at a West Bank protest. Amid popular calls to cut off key security cooperation and to retaliate, some leaders are calling for calm.

Karim Kadim/AP/File
Ziad Abu Ain speaks to reporters during a news conference in Baghdad two years ago. Palestinian officials say that the Palestinian deputy minister of prisoner affairs died after being hit by a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest in the West Bank Wednesday.

“If anyone asks about the Palestinian Gandhi, he is dead.”

That’s how one Palestinian on Twitter summed up the events of Wednesday, in which Ziad Abu Ein, a senior Palestinian Authority (PA) official and a fiery leader of protests against Israeli settlement activity, died shortly after a clash with Israeli soldiers at a West Bank demonstration.

Though Israelis were quick to point to Mr. Abu Ein's involvement decades ago in attacks against civilians, the Palestinian narrative of him as a nonviolent protest leader swept Wednesday throughout social media, with numerous images – real and illustrated – depicting him as a courageous civilian standing up to Israel's military occupation.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon expressed "sorrow" over his death, and said Israel had proposed a joint investigation into the incident as well as a joint autopsy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israel’s “brutal assault,” but also cautioned against reacting before the publication of results from Wednesday night’s autopsy, which is to be attended by an Israeli pathologist and a delegation of Jordanian pathologists.

But Palestinians in the streets and on social media, as well as those in leadership positions, were calling for strong retaliation. Indeed, the incident has raised concerns of a further escalation of the violence that has seen 10 Israelis and a dozen Palestinians killed in recent weeks.

“This new assassination will have severe consequences,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Jibril Rajoub, a leader in Mr. Abbas’s Fatah faction and former head of security in the West Bank, warned that the PA would end its security coordination with Israel even as Mr. Yaalon declared, "Security stability is important to both sides and we will continue coordination with the PA."

The coordination, in which Palestinian security forces work with the Israeli army to collect intelligence, detain suspects, and thwart attacks, is widely unpopular among Palestinians and seen by some as traitorous.

“We consider security coordination as a perverted move on the part of the PA,” says Shehab, an 18-year-old from the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, an epicenter of Palestinian clashes with the Israeli army in recent months. “How can anyone coordinate with the enemy in any way?”

Severe consequences

If Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, were to end security coordination, it would likely have severe consequences for Palestinian relations with Israel and the United States, the PA’s largest donor. Many Palestinians, however, say the price of coordinating with Israel and thus enabling the state to perpetuate its occupation of the West Bank is higher than the potential cost of ending it.

“The price that we are paying now is the highest price that anyone can pay – the loss of our land,” says Khaled Dibs, a Fatah activist from the Shuafat refugee camp, a squalid area encircled by Israel’s towering cement separation wall and controlled by checkpoints. “This is an occupation, and we will continue our resistance no matter what the price.”

Palestinian youths in the streets of Shuafat said there would undoubtedly be protests Wednesday night, as there have been on so many nights in recent months, especially after a resident of the camp attacked Israeli border policemen along Jerusalem’s light rail and was shot dead on the spot.

The killing of that resident, Ibrahim al-Akari, in a way resonates more than that of a government official, the youths said, despite Abu Ein’s record.

Convicted in deadly bombing

Abu Ein was imprisoned in the US as a 20-year-old and extradited to Israel, where he was convicted of killing two young Israelis in a bomb attack in 1979.

He was sentenced to life in Israeli prison, but set free in a prisoner exchange in 1985. Abu Ein, who previously served as deputy minister of prisoner affairs, was appointed this year to head the PA’s committee on settlements and Israel’s separation barrier, which it erected during a time of frequent Palestinian suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

On Wednesday he was leading a protest of Palestinians, Israeli leftists, and some foreign activists in the West Bank village of Turmusiya to plant olive trees on land they said was threatened by a nearby Israeli settlement.

He was engaged in a shouting match with Israeli forces who blocked the demonstrations from proceeding further. He condemned the “terrorist army” of Israel for attacking the protesters, none of whom, he said, had thrown a stone.

Grabbed by the throat

The available video footage is incomplete, and there are conflicting accounts of what happened. However, one clip clearly shows one of the Israeli soldiers grabbing Abu Ein firmly by the throat. In an interview just after the incident, Abu Ein also said he was hit by the butt of a gun, and eyewitnesses said the Israeli forces used tear gas as well. With labored breaths, he vowed, “We will continue to resist.”

He collapsed and died en route to the hospital shortly afterward. He was said to have had several preexisting health conditions.

Israel initially said he died of a heart attack, but later offered to conduct a joint investigation with Palestinian officials into the death. The military said it was reviewing the circumstances of the protest, which it said was attended by 200 participants.

Mr. Dibs, the Fatah activist from Shuafat, says the call to end PA security coordination with the Israeli military and security forces was not so much an attempt to prevent incidents like Wednesday’s but to punish Israel.

“In our opinion, Israel is the real beneficiary of security cooperation,” he says. If the PA were to end security coordination, Israel would have to take broader responsibility for security – including in the urban centers, now under PA security control – and thus deepen its occupation.

UN action is urged

All individuals interviewed by the Monitor implored the international community to protect Palestinians against what they termed Israeli injustices, including at the United Nations Security Council, where Palestinians are seeking a resolution that would set a firm timetable for ending the Israeli occupation. The US is expected to veto any such resolution.

UN envoy Robert Serry urged the Israeli authorities to "conduct a prompt, thorough, and transparent investigation into the circumstance of his death and appeal for calm."

Meanwhile, young people in the streets of Shuafat – as in many Palestinian areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank – vow to press on.

“Every shahid (martyr) that falls as a result of Israeli occupation activities against us will nurture and strengthen the resistance against the occupation,” says Ahmed, a 17-year-old who participates regularly in demonstrations against Israeli soldiers in the camp. “To us, a shahid is better than 100 ministers.”

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