JERUSALEM (AP) — Clashes erupted Saturday in the West Bank where Jewish settlers shot two Palestinian demonstrators in the northern village of Kusra, an Israeli military official and Palestinian residents said.
The clashes reflected mounting friction in the West Bank, where Palestinians have faced off against Israeli troops in recent weeks in a series of large demonstrations protesting Israel's control of the territory in general and in solidarity of four hunger-striking prisoners in Israeli jails.
Also Saturday, a Palestinian prisoner died in an Israeli jail, an event that is likely to intensify tension in the area.
In the West Bank skirmish, Helmi Abdul-Aziz, 24, was shot in the stomach by Jewish settlers, Palestinian demonstrators said. They said Jewish settlers also shot 14-year-old Mustafa Hilal in the foot.
An Israeli military official confirmed that two Palestinians were shot, but said the bullets appeared to have been fired by Jewish settlers because the Israeli forces were not using live ammunition. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with military policy.
A Palestinian hospital official said Abdul-Aziz was in serious condition. The medic requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Villagers said the clashes began when a group of Jewish settlers encroached on their village lands and fired guns. They said Jewish settlers chased a Palestinian farmer and his family off land, prompting the farmer to call on residents to confront the settlers, and men on both sides hurled rocks at each other.
The Israeli military official said about 200 Palestinians and 25 Jewish settlers took part in the clashes, and Israeli forces dispersed Palestinian protestors using "riot dispersal means."
Two Palestinian residents watching the clashes, Basem Nazal and Abdul-Azim Wadi, said Israeli forces fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets on demonstrators, and that a rubber bullet hit a 15-year-old Palestinian demonstrator in the eye. They also said the Israeli forces did not use live fire.
Nazal, a resident of Kusra, said groups of settlers were also uprooting their olive trees and vandalizing Palestinian homes close the wildcat Jewish outpost of Eish Kodesh.
Israel Radio reported that settlers from Eish Kodesh said the clashes began when Palestinians entered their outpost and began destroying their vineyards.
There are some 300,000 Israeli Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, which the international community condemns. Palestinians seek the West Bank, a hilly territory which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, for part of their future state. A hardline minority of Jewish settlers frequently attack nearby Palestinian villagers and their property.
The clashes come a day after widespread demonstrations took place throughout the West Bank in support of four Palestinian prisoners who are on hunger strikes in Israeli detention. Hundreds of Palestinians in Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank Friday threw rocks at soldiers who responded with tear gas, and in Jerusalem, dozens of Palestinian worshippers threw rocks at Israeli officers at a key holy site. Earlier in the week, Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers at a pair of West Bank rallies in support of the prisoners.
In an Israeli jail Saturday, Palestinian prisoner Arafat Shalish Shahin Jaradat died of an apparent heart attack, according to Israeli prison services spokeswoman Sivan Weizman. She said Jaradat had not been on hunger strike. Still, his death is likely to enrage Palestinians at time when they have been stepping up demonstrations in protest of Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners, especially four long-time hunger-strikers, including one whose health is rapidly deteriorating.
Israel's domestic intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, said in a statement to reporters that Jaradat, 30, was arrested on Feb. 18 after residents in his West Bank village of Saeer said he was involved in a rock-throwing attack that injured an Israeli citizen. Jaradat admitted to the charge, as well to another West Bank rock-throwing incident last year, the Shin Bet said.
Jaradat suffered from back pain and had been injured in the past by a rubber bullet and tear gas canister, the Shin Bet said. But he was examined a few times by a doctor who detected no health problems, and his interrogation continued, the agency said.
After lunch on Saturday, Jaradat fell ill, and medics were unable to resuscitate him. A Shin Bet spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with protocol, said Jaradat was not beaten during his interrogation, nor did he experience any physical activities that might have led to a worsening of his health.
Israeli police have opened an investigation into the prisoner's death, the Shin Bet statement said.
The Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer announced that Palestinian prisoners would go on a one-day hunger strike to commemorate their dead comrade.