A masked Palestinian hurls back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli police Friday during clashes next to an Israeli military prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Oliver Weiken / European Pressphoto Agency / February 22, 2013)
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinians demonstrated throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem on Friday demanding the release of four prisoners on a hunger strike in Israeli jails.
In East Jerusalem, dozens of Palestinians briefly clashed with Israeli police following Friday prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
An Israeli police spokesman said police entered the mosque plaza after about 100 Palestinians threw rocks at them near one of the gates to the mosque. Police used sound grenades to disperse the Palestinians, he said, adding that there were no arrests or injuries and that “the incident was over in few minutes.”
Witnesses reported hearing loud explosions outside the closed buildings where they stayed to avoid the clashes. Muslim officials said the explosions were the sound of stun grenades police had fired in the direction of the stone throwers as they chased them out of the plaza.
Medics said they treated nine people who were lightly injured.
Protests also broke out for the second day at an Israeli military camp near Ramallah; in the old city of Hebron in the south of the West Bank, where soldiers manned checkpoints leading to a Jewish enclave in the city; and at Israeli-controlled checkpoints outside Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm in the north of the West Bank.
Israeli soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas at hundreds of Palestinians who participated in the protests. Medics said at least 20 people were treated for rubber bullet injuries in the Ramallah area. Trucks shooting "skunk water" were also used to disperse the stone-throwing Palestinians.
Qaddoura Faris, who heads a Palestinian prisoners’ support group, said the protests would continue until Israel releases the four striking prisoners.
“People are up in arms because Israel does not seem to care about the lives of the prisoners,” he said. “The prisoners issue is a priority one and a very sensitive issue for the Palestinian people, who look at the prisoners as heroes who sacrificed themselves and their future for the sake of their country and people.”
A Palestinian at the Ramallah protest who identified himself only as Alaa said he has been participating in the demonstrations because he has a brother who is a prisoner.
“It is time all the prisoners are freed if there is going to be real peace,” he said as he was watching soldiers firing tear gas in the direction of the stone throwers. He said he is opposed to violence and prefers to see only peaceful protests, adding “but the Israeli soldiers do not allow us to hold peaceful protests only because the minute we arrive at the camp they start firing tear gas at us.”
Palestinian Authority officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, have said that the prisoners issue will be on top of their agenda in any talks. Israel is expected to release some prisoners as a goodwill gesture before President Obama visits the region next month, though such a move has not been officially confirmed.
Israel is holding around 4,500 Palestinians it accuses of being involved in illegal activities.