By Edmund Sanders and Maher Abukhater
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
8:42 AM PST, February 24, 2013
JERUSALEM -- The sudden death of a 30-year-old Palestinian man being held in an Israeli jail sparked another day of protests and rioting across the West Bank on Sunday as fears heightened that Palestinian frustration levels are nearing a boiling point.
Clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers erupted in the West Bank city of Hebron and nearby villages following the death of Arafat Jaradat, a gas station attendant who was arrested Feb. 18 for throwing rocks and firebombs at Israelis near Hebron.
Israeli officials say the married father of two small children died Saturday of an apparent heart attack in Meggido prison.
Palestinian Prisoners Minister Issa Qaraqi called for an international inquiry into the conditions in Israeli jails, including the circumstances of Jaradat's death, and said Israel should be held responsible.
Jaradat's attorney, Kmeil Sabbagh, said his client complained of being mistreated during interrogation, and that he appeared to be suffering from back pain and extreme anxiety during a court hearing last week.
Members of Jaradat's family said he was in good health before his arrest and that they fear he was beaten in custody.
Israel denied any mistreatment and invited the man's family and Palestinian doctors to participate in an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Results have not been released.
[Updated, 11:44 a.m. Feb. 24: Following an autopsy Sunday, conducted by Israel and observed by a Palestinian doctor, Qaraqi said Jaradat’s body was bruised and showed signs of being beaten on the chest, back, arms and mouth.
"It is obvious that Arafat underwent severe torture during interrogation that caused him a psychological shock that led to his immediate death," Qaraqi said Sunday night. "It seems he was in a slaughterhouse. Israel should not be allowed to get away with this."]
In addition to the clashes around Hebron, outrage over Jaradat's death led to smaller protests in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin and at checkpoints in East Jerusalem and south of Nablus. Palestinians threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. Israeli soldiers used tear gas and rubber bullets. At least four protesters were seriously wounded, Palestinian officials said.
More than 4,500 Palestinian prisoners also called for a one-day hunger strike Sunday to mourn Jaradat's death.
Jaradat was not among the four Palestinian prisoners whose ongoing hunger strike had already galvanized Palestinians in the West Bank, triggering several demonstrations over the past week.
The conditions of those men continued to worsen, officials said. Three have been moved from a prison clinic to a hospital, according to Israeli Prison Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman.
Palestinian leaders have warned that the death of one of those four men could unleash a wave of violence they might not be able to control. So far most of the clashes have been short-lived and involved only a few dozen youths.
Palestinian Authority officials urged protesters to avoid violence.
"You can call it an intifada, a spring or whatever you want," said Palestinian official Jibril Rajoub. "We won't initiate bloodshed, but surely we must be allowed to take nonviolent actions."
In an effort to ease tension, Israel said Sunday that it would release an additional month's worth of tax revenue, totaling about $100 million, to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.
Israel halted the payments in December after the authority won a U.N. vote to upgrade its status in the international body to nonmember "state." In January, it transferred one-month's payment but said that action did not signify a permanent resumption.
The authority is struggling under a large budget deficit, and government salaries for thousands of employees have been delinquent for months. As of last week, the authority had only paid half of January salaries.
That's exacerbated anxiety among Palestinians and fueled demonstrations. Because unpaid teachers have declared periodic strikes, schools have closed, sending youths into the streets to participate in the protests.
In Israel, some are now worried that a combination of factors are creating a perfect storm that could trigger another Palestinian uprising. Such conditions include a stalled peace process, increased settlement construction and a recent spike in clashes between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.
"The highway leading to an intifada is wide open," warned Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper columnist Alex Fishman on Sunday.
On Saturday, Palestinians in the village of Kursa said nearby settlers attacked them, leading to clashes that Israeli soldiers had to break up.
Palestinian hospital officials said two Palestinians were shot with live ammunition in the fight and that one was seriously wounded. Palestinians accused settlers of shooting them, but settlers denied using deadly fire. The army said it would investigate the incident.
The prisoner issue is a particularly sensitive and explosive one because nearly every Palestinian family includes at least one member who has been jailed by Israel.
For several months, four prisoners have refused to eat in protest against their detention, and over the past week advocates for Palestinian prisoners warned that their health is at risk.
Israeli security officials have defended the arrests. Two, Jafar Izzedin and Tareq Qadan from the Jenin area, have been linked to Islamic Jihad, Israeli officials said. Both were arrested Nov. 22 and held in so-called administrative detention, under which Israel can hold prisoners indefinitely without revealing the evidence against them or formally charging them.
Israel says the practice is needed to protect its intelligence-gathering operations.
The other two, Samer Issawi and Ayman Sharawna, had been previously convicted by Israel for committing crimes against Israel and were released in 2011 as part of the prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Israel re-arrested the men in 2012, accusing them of violating the terms of their release by reengaging in militant activities.
Israel on Sunday called on the Palestinian Authority leadership to use its security forces to quell the violence, but the unrest also increases the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to improve prison conditions and restart formal peace talks, particularly in advance of President Obama's expected trip to Israel next month.
"Israel can and must do more to keep the gasoline fumes from igniting," said Mideast expert Yitzhak Reiter of Ashkelon Academic College. "The prisoners issue is the immediate cause for the riots, but the long-term issue is the peace process."
Sanders reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abukhater reported from Ramallah. News assistant Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.
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