Palestinian official's career mirrored triumphs and failures of Oslo peace deal

Ziad Abu Eid died Wednesday after a scuffle with Israeli security forces. His funeral was held Thursday amid an ongoing dispute over the exact cause of his death. 

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Members of Palestinian security forces carry the body of Ziad Abu Ain during his funeral in Ramallah on Thursday. The popular Palestinian Cabinet minister died after scuffling with Israeli troops during a protest on Wednesday.

The career of Ziad Abu Ein traced the same arc as many of his generation of Palestinian comrades: From a youthful commitment to armed resistance to Israel to a late middle age role as a security partner of the Jewish state. 

His death of an apparent heart attack after scuffling with an Israeli soldier at a protest over Israeli settlements in the West Bank has outraged members of the Palestinian Authority in which he served. PA President Mahmoud Abbas called for three days of mourning, temporarily suspended security cooperation with Israel, and said the events that led to Mr. Abu Ein's death amount to "a barbaric act which we cannot be silent about or accept." His funeral was held Thursday in Ramallah

The anger at the death of the former cabinet minister and head of the Committee to Resist the Wall and Settlements, has fanned speculation over how far PA leaders might go in rupturing ties with Israel. Such speculation has intensified in recent years as the Oslo peace process seems to be in reverse. So far, the PA hasn't taken any drastic steps in this direction. Still, an accumulation of deaths, insults, expanding settlements, and the absence of any hope of an independent Palestinian state saps support for the PA and the ruling Fatah Party. If the trajectory doesn't change, something, inevitably, will have to give.

And for those hoping for a change of course, Abu Ein's death could prove a rallying point. The exact cause of his death is disputed: An Israeli coroner says he had a heart attack likely brought on by the stressful conditions at the protest; chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat say he was "killed in cold blood." And his final moments were caught on camera. "This is the terrorism of the occupation, this is a terrorist army, practising its terrorism on the Palestinian people. We came to plant trees on Palestinian land, and they launch into an attack on us from the first moment. Nobody threw a single stone," he said, shortly before collapsing. 

Who was Abu Ein? He was born in 1959 and first jailed in Israel in 1977. In 1979 he fled to the United States, where he spent over two years in jail in Chicago fighting an Israeli extradition request on charges that he had participated in a bombing that killed two people, a charge he denied. The Monitor described his extradition to Israel in 1981 as "precedent-setting," since it upended a long-standing US refusal to extradite suspects charged with political crimes to Israel.

At the time he was a member of the General Union of Palestinian Students, a group under the umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In Israel he was sentenced to life in prison. Then, in 1985 he was one of over 1,100 prisoners released in an exchange for three Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon by a hardline PLO splinter group. In April 2002 he was detained without charges by Israel during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, and released 14 months later.

Haaretz wrote at the time of his 2003 release:

Once released, [Abu Ein's] home became a Mecca for pilgrimages by Palestinians welcoming him home, including members of the Abbas government for whom the prisoner issue is very important.

The families [of prisoners] are a very powerful lobby in Palestinian society. Last week, there were solidarity demonstrations and strikes with the prisoners in Ramallah and elsewhere. Young people shackled themselves with handcuffs, covered their eyes with blindfolds, and sat behind barbed wire, dressed in shirts that carried badges with the names and pictures of individual prisoners.

In the years after his second release, Abu Ein emerged as a leading advocate for Palestinian prisoners rights. But he was also seen as part of the Fatah Party's more compromising wing, and was a supporter of negotiations with Israel.

Israel's left-leaning 972 Magazine spoke to Issa Amro, a non-violent resistant leader in Hebron who knew Abu Ein well, shortly after the latter's death. He said the senior Fatah and PLO man had become committed to non-violence.

I have known him since he assumed his current role as the official responsible for popular struggle in the West Bank and against settlements,” Amro said. “He really tried to advance the non-violent struggle. He tried to organize non-violent [popular] committees, to organize the youth, political parties and students. He had a vision that 2015 would be the year of Palestinian non-violent struggle.”

Amro said of today’s events: “The army and the settlers turn the leaders of non-violent struggle into targets. That’s their way of preventing us from recruiting more people and more young people into our struggle. Look at how the army responds to non-violent struggle – with disproportionate violence toward the activists.”

Abu Ein's life ended without having achieved any of his goals. And the prospects of the Oslo accord, that led him and dozens like him down a path in which they were willing to accept a smaller Palestinian state rather than nothing at all, have never looked dimmer. His generation is now wondering if they made the right choices – as are the younger Palestinians behind him.

“The Palestinian people were asked by the Americans and the Europeans to make their cause a popular one and a peaceful one,” Fatah official Khalid Itmazi told The Guardian at Abu Ein's funeral today, as thousands of mourners trailed his coffin to the cemetery. “We did that but in exchange we have neither peace nor stability. After this we should liquidate the Palestinian Authority and put the occupation under Israeli authority.”

That's a step that Mr. Abbas has long resisted. But it's also a sentiment that's growing.

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