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Palestinian prisoner deaths cause a spark, but unlikely to start a blaze

Israel and Gaza both have an interest in keeping the calm that has prevailed since a November cease-fire.

The death of a Palestinian prisoner in Israeli custody this week has sparked the worst violence between Israel and Gaza since a November cease-fire, but it appears unlikely to seriously undermine the relative calm that has prevailed the past four months. 

“It doesn’t seem we’re witnessing a deterioration, just a tit-for-tat,” says Mkhaimer Abu Saada, political science professor at al-Azhar University in Gaza. “Until now, both Hamas and Israel have an interest in keeping the cease-fire agreement.” 

While the prisoner issue is extremely sensitive, and draws strong support from Palestinians of all political stripes, Gaza is still recovering from the eight-day conflict this fall – in which Israeli airstrikes destroyed dozens of suspected weapons sites and other Hamas-related targets – as well as the more devastating 2009 war. 

“We cannot put people under the pressure and the tension all the time,” says Ghazi Hamed, deputy foreign minister of the Hamas-run government. He says that Hamas has good control of the other Palestinian militant factions in the tiny coastal territory, although he acknowledges that occasionally some rogue groups controlled by outside interests send “political missiles,” such as a volley of fire that coincided with President Obama’s visit last month.

Many messages, little action

This week, Gaza militants of fired several rounds of mortars into Israel, with Israeli retaliating once with airstrikes overnight. But there have been no injuries and the fact that Israel, which often boasts about its high-precision weaponry, hit a relatively unpopulated area is seen as proof that it only wanted to send a message, not escalate the situation.

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“[Israel’s] interests are against escalation,” says Reuven Pedhazur, an Israeli security analyst inTel Aviv, adding that any escalation would likely be instigated by Gazans. “If [a Palestinian militant faction] wasn’t willing to listen to Hamas and is willing to launch, then there could be an escalation.”

Palestinians in Gaza hold a similar view. While they blame Israel for the death of prisoner Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh two days ago, and say that Gaza stands in solidarity with the West Bank, they suggest that Gaza will only strike back if hit first.

“Yes, he’s from the West Bank, but this reflects that we are one nation, one country, regardless of the division that the Israeli occupation is trying to do,” says Faiz Ajouri, speaking on the sidelines of a protest and mock funeral for Mr. Abu Hamdiyeh. “If the Israelis are going to attack Gaza, we will react and the Israelis will understand that it’s going to be stronger than last time.”

While the prisoner issue has the potential to ignite further violence, particularly if one of the prisoners currently on a long-term hunger strike dies, it could potentially help unify the split between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.

It could also be the means of bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who for the past four years has refused to restart negotiations unless Israel freezes Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank, is now reportedly willing to renew talks in exchange for the release of the 121 Palestinians imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Gaza protester: ‘Many more are going to die’

Abu Hamdiyeh was serving a life sentence after being convicted of attempted murder for the foiled bombing of a Jerusalem cafe in 2002. He was diagnosed with cancer in February, a number of months after complaining of severe pain. Palestinian officials blame the Israeli prison authorities for medical neglect, including a delayed diagnosis, failure to provide adequate and timely treatment, and a refusal to release him on humanitarian grounds.

Israeli officials deny the charges of neglect and say they were in the process of arranging an early release when he died two days ago. 

Abu Hamdiyeh’s death has sparked clashes in his hometown of Hebron and across the West Bank; two teenage boys were shot and killed by the Israel Defense Forces in Tulkarem overnight after allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails in the IDF’s direction.

In Gaza, Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, made a rare public appearance, leading an evening march through Jabaliya with masked gunmen piling into at least five pick-up trucks as supporters followed with flags and loud chanting.

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The atmosphere in Gaza was more muted today. As Palestinians in Abu Hamdiyeh’s hometown of Hebron clashed with the IDF, supporters in Gaza City held a mock funeral. With some 4,500 Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons, including 121 from before the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed, the prisoner issue strikes a raw nerve for Palestinians regardless of background.

Abu Hamdiyeh’s death comes little more than a month after Arafat Jaradat, a young man who was also from Hebron, died less than a week of being arrested by Israelis. Palestinians say the autopsy showed evidence of severe beating, though Israel denies the claim. Still, the perception among many Palestinians is that prisoners’ lives are in danger.

“This is to show the international community that the issue is not just one prisoner, the issue is that many more are going to die,” says Feda Abu Ayesha, a young woman at the Gaza protest.