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Palestinian Minister Dies After Confrontation with Israeli Soldiers at West Bank Protest

Video footage shows a soldier repeatedly grabbing the throat of Ziad Abu Ein, who died on the way to hospital. His death immediately sparked clashes in the Palestinian territory.

by Hannah Strange
Dec 10 2014, 1:40pm

Image via Reuters

A senior Palestinian cabinet minister has died following a West Bank protest during which Israeli soldiers were seen shoving him and grabbing his throat.

Ziad Abu Ein, who had responsibility for the issue of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territory, was rushed away in an ambulance following the incident at Wednesday's protest, but died on the way to the hospital in the city of Ramallah.

His death immediately stirred anger in the West Bank, where Palestinian shopkeepers in Ramallah shuttered their businesses and young men threw stones at Israeli soldiers guarding a settlement near the city. Protesters descended on the site of the confrontation near the vilage of Turmusiya, throwing rocks at security forces and setting fire to tires, Israeli media reported.

It also drew a swift condemnation from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who described it as "a barbaric act which we cannot be silent about or accept." Announcing three days of national mourning, he vowed that his administration would take the "necessary steps" following an investigation.

As the death of the minister threatened to further escalate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians following a wave of violence in recent weeks, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Israel regretted the incident and would cooperate with the Palestinian Authority (PA) on a joint autopsy.

"Security stability is important to both sides and we will continue coordination with the PA," he said.

Abu Ein was rushed to a hospital in Ramallah but died on the way. Photos by Dylan Collins.

Footage obtained by Sky News Arabia showed Abu Ein involved in a heated confrontation with Israeli soldiers, before one repeatedly lunges for his throat and pushes him. He is then pulled away by protesters. Another soldier appears to be trying to restrain his colleague.

The incident took place after Abu Ein and around 100 foreign and Palestinian activists with the Committee to Resist Settlements and the Wall — a government-run protest group headed by Abu Ein — were stopped at a makeshift Israeli checkpoint near Turmusiya while on their way to plant olive trees and protest near a settlement. 

Scuffles broke out and a group of around 15 Israeli soldiers fired tear gas at the protesters, Reuters reported

Palestinian medics told the BBC that the minister had died as a result of suffocation from the tear gas, though one witness said a tear gas canister had hit him in the chest. The Palestinian news agency Ma'an cited PA officials as saying he had sustained critical injuries in the altercation with the soldiers, during which they claimed he had been struck in the chest with a helmet. 

Some Israeli media quickly raised questions over Abu Ein's health, suggesting the minister, in his 50s, suffered from diabetes — a claim which could not be independently confirmed. The Jerusalem Post reported that army sources believed he may have died of a heart attack.

 A statement released later by the Israeli Defense Force said that soldiers had "halted the progress of rioters into the civilian community of Adei-Ad using riot-dispersal means."

"The IDF is reviewing the circumstances of the participation of Ziad Abu Ein, and his later death," it said.

A spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the death as "brutal." 

The death of the minister prompted outpourings of grief at Ramallah hospital.

"The Secretary-General calls on the Israeli authorities to conduct a swift and transparent investigation into the circumstances of the brutal death of Minister Abu Ein. He also calls on all sides to exercise maximum restraint and avoid further escalation," the spokesman said in a statement.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy chief, called for an "immediate and independent" investigation into the death and described reports of "excessive use of force" on the part of Israeli troops were "extremely worrying.''

Abu Ein was once sentenced to death by an Israeli court over a marketplace bombing which killed two Israeli teenagers in 1979. He consistently denied involvement and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment before his release in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange. 

The death will further inflame tensions between Israelis and Palestinians at a time of an upsurge in violence spurred in part by a dispute over access to the Temple Mount, or al-Haram al-Sharif, a sacred site to both Jews and Muslims. 

Ten Israelis and an Ecuadorian have been killed in Palestinian attacks in recent weeks, including a gun and knife assault during morning prayers at a Jerusalem synagogue which left five dead. A total of 13 Palestinians have also been killed in apparent acts of retaliation. 

Palestinian anger is also still festering over Israel's summer bombardment of Gaza, in which at least 2,189 Palestinians died, including more than 1,486 civilians, according to the United Nations. 495 children and 253 women were among those killed during the 50-day conflict, which also devastated much of the tiny coastal enclave. 

Rocket attacks and clashes between security forces and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, left 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians dead.

On Tuesday a report by human rights group Amnesty International accused Israel of "war crimes," claiming that airstrikes on four high rise buildings in the final days of the campaign had "no military justification" and amounted to "collective punishment."

The Israeli embassy in London said in a statement that the report ignored the use of the buildings by Hamas for military purposes, and suggested that Amnesty should be investigating Palestinian rocket attacks instead.

Follow Hannah Strange on Twitter: @hannahkstrange

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Mahmoud Abbas
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ziad abu ein