Inmate's death sparks riots in West Bank, Gaza


JERUSALEM -- The death of a Palestinian prisoner has refueled demonstrations in the Israeli-occupied territories, adding to the toll of victims and further straining the Middle East peace talks.

Palestinian leaders acknowledge the two-week spasm of unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza threatens to jeopardize progress in the peace negotiations scheduled to resume next Wednesday in Washington.

Palestinian negotiators are in Tunis, Tunisia, this week to get new directions from the Palestine Liberation Organization headquartered there. If heated clashes still are occurring daily, Palestinian leaders acknowledge they could be forced to boycott the next round of talks, or at the least take a particularly tough stance toward the Israelis.

"If the peace process cannot even improve the basic human rights situation, how can we expect to make progress?" delegation spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said on Jordan Radio yesterday.

Widespread demonstrations began after Palestinian prisoners began a hunger strike Sept. 27. The hunger strike largely ended Sunday, but the death Wednesday of one of the inmates involved caused a resumption of scattered rioting.

At least eight Palestinians have been killed in the disturbances since the hunger strike began, and hundreds injured. One Israeli soldier was critically injured in a shootout with Palestinians.

"This is the most obvious expression of popular support for the intifada [uprising] we've seen in the past year," said Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, a spokesman for the Israeli Army. "We're seeing what we haven't seen for a year: close-up confrontation of Palestinian women screaming in the soldiers' faces."

The death Wednesday of Hussein Asad Obeidat, a 22-year-old dishwasher serving a six-year sentence in an Ashqelon prison, prompted Palestinians to call for a three-day general strike, and caused Arab inmates in at least five Israeli prisons to announce they would resume the hunger strike.

Israeli authorities said Mr. Obeidat resumed eating Sunday but died of a heart attack unrelated to the hunger strike. Family members yesterday got a court order for an independent autopsy.

"We accuse the occupation authorities of being behind the killing of Hussein," said a cousin, also named Hussein Obeidat.

Earlier, youths of the neighborhood had confronted police and soldiers for the second time with rocks and bottles. Authorities responded with rubber bullets, wounding at least one and arresting 18.

"There will be an escalation of this," said Mr. Obeidat's brother, Ishmael Obeidat, 25. "The Israelis are showing no good will at all."

An Israeli farmer was stabbed to death yesterday morning, the second Israeli civilian killed this week.

Sixty miles north of Jerusalem in the small Israeli farming community of Metav, workers found the body of Shimon Avraham, 32, in his field. Police said he had been stabbed by several Arabs, who then stole his car and abandoned it in the West Bank.

The murder prompted a new round of recriminations by Israeli politicians over whether peace negotiations should continue in the face of such violence.

"Whoever murdered this man is trying to murder the peace process," Knesset Member Ran Cohen said.

Israeli officials have portrayed the prison strike and the disturbances that accompanied it as a political power struggle among Palestinian factions in an effort to disrupt the peace talks.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed on Israeli television this week that would not happen. "It is important that the Palestinians understand that we will not enable transferring solution of the problem between us from the negotiating table to the streets and alleys of the Gaza Strip and West Bank," he said.

Later, Army Chief of Staff Ehud Barak reaffirmed that vow. "We will deal with this with all our strength," he said.

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