JERUSALEM – Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank in a show of outrage Thursday over the deaths of two Palestinian protesters killed in clashes with Israel and a third Palestinian who died of cancer in an Israeli prison. In Gaza, militants fired a rocket that landed in southern Israel, causing no casualties.
The unrest has raised tensions between Israel and the Palestinians after days of West Bank clashes and rocket fire into southern Israel, prompting the first Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip since a cease-fire was reached last November. Israel has vowed to respond harshly to further attacks from Gaza.
In the West Bank city of Hebron, thousands of people turned out for the funeral of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, a 64-year-old prisoner who died earlier this week from throat cancer while in Israeli custody. The Palestinians have blamed Israel for Abu Hamdiyeh's death, saying he did not receive proper medical care. He had been serving a life sentence for his involvement in an attempted bombing of a busy Jerusalem cafe in 2002.
Abu Hamidiyeh's body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, was paraded on a stretcher in a military funeral to a Hebron mosque, where prayers were held. Thousands of people waited outside the mosque to take the body for burial.
The Israeli military reported clashes with Palestinian protesters elsewhere in Hebron, Bethlehem, as well as on a main road in the northern West Bank. The military said it fired tear gas to disperse the crowds, and no major injuries were reported.
In Tulkarem, also in the northern West Bank, hundreds of people participated in the funeral of two Palestinians who were shot dead by Israeli troops late Wednesday during clashes near a military checkpoint. The Israeli military said troops opened fire after firebombs were thrown at them.
Speaking to top officials of the ruling Fatah party, President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel for the violence, saying it is trying to divert attention away from a four-year standstill in peace efforts.
"It seems that Israel wants to spark chaos in the Palestinian territories," he said. "From the beginning, we have said we want stability and calm. Despite that, Israel on every occasion is using lethal force against peaceful young protesters, and peaceful demonstrations are being suppressed with the power of weapons. This is not acceptable at all."
Abbas has refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim for a future state. Israel, which captured the areas in the 1967 Mideast war, has refused to halt settlement construction and says negotiations should begin without any preconditions.
The violence comes ahead of a visit to the region this weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who hopes to find a formula for restarting peace negotiations in the coming months. President Barack Obama has decided to make a new attempt to revive talks after largely ignoring the Israel-Palestinian issue during his first term.
Continued violence, including rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, will certainly complicate the new U.S. push.
Early Thursday, Gaza militants fired several rockets toward Israel, defying warnings that Israel will not tolerate the attacks. Only one of the rockets exploded in Israel, causing no injuries, the military said. It said the other projectiles exploded prematurely inside Gaza.
It was the third consecutive day of rocket fire on Israel, and late Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel's patience was growing thin.
"If the quiet is violated, we will respond strongly," he said. "The security of Israel's citizens is my chief concern and we will know how to defend the security of our people."
The violence in Israel's south has shattered a four-month calm and threatened a cease-fire reached last November following eight days of heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.