They came in their hundreds; first to hospital to pay their respects to their fallen comrade, and then on to the streets to throw rocks and roll burning tyres at the Israelis, who they blame for his demise.
Despite the masses at Hebron’s central Al-Alhi hospital, where Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh’s body lay, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, it was an intensely family affair. The heavily armed security guards who had allowed photographers and reporters to see the body suddenly melted away to allow his grieving family to kiss the body as they arrived – the only intimate moment of what became a very public event.
After that, the funeral took on the appearance of a political rally. From the hospital, Abu Hamdiyeh’s body was lifted on to a truck, flanked by more heavily armed Palestinian security officials. Hundreds of metres of traffic snaked behind the body, beeping horns and blaring out patriotic music and prayers.
Abu Hamdiyeh was a so-called security prisoner – convicted of planning to blow up a café in Jerusalem – who died of cancer in Israeli custody on Tuesday. He was also a Palestinian national hero. His death has sparked rocket fire from Gaza and clashes for three days in the West Bank. He had aggressive cancer of the oesophagus, but that didn’t stop Palestinians blaming the Israelis for his death. Outside the hospital, the Palestinian Minister for Prisoners, Issa Qaraqie, was clear who was to blame. “He died because of negligence – had they caught the cancer, he would have lived for many years. The Israelis didn’t give him appropriate treatment,” he said.
The convoy, headed by the body, eventually snaked its way to a mosque in the city where Fatah and Hamas supporters waved flags of their chosen faction. Masked members of the Al-Asqa Martyrs Brigade, the armed wing of Fatah, fired repeatedly into the air.
Abu Hamdiyeh’s funeral had always been expected to spark protests and as people moved away from the mosque, clashes broke out at one of the main checkpoints in the city and hundreds of young men hurled rocks at the security forces. Tyres, later set alight and rolled towards the checkpoint to provide cover for the protests, were brought in vans. In response, the Israeli security forces fired multiple rounds of tear gas, some of the canisters landing on those in the streets.
As well as Hebron, there was also violence in Bethlehem and Tulkarem, where protesters flocked to the funeral of two Palestinians who were shot dead by Israeli troops on Wednesday evening near a military checkpoint. The Israelis said troops opened fire after rocks were thrown at them. The violence in the West Bank came hours after another rocket from Gaza hit southern Israel, the third consecutive day of strikes.
Despite the clashes there were no reported injuries on either side, but they nonetheless represent a blow for those that were hoping that the visit of Barack Obama last month would reignite the moribund peace process. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arrives in the region at the weekend for further talks.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Israel for the violence. “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.”
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.”