Abbas announces three days of mourning after Ziad Abu Ain was reportedly shoved by Israeli troops while planting olive trees.
A senior minister in the government of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas died on Wednesday following a violent confrontation with Israeli troops in a West Bank village near Ramallah.
Ziad Abu Ain, who dealt with the issue of Israeli settlements and the separation wall, died as he was being rushed to hospital after becoming involved in clashes with Israeli troops while trying to plant olive trees in the village of Turmusiya near Ramallah.
Abbas described the attack as “a barbaric act which we cannot be silent about or accept”. He announced three days of national mourning and said he would take “necessary steps” after an investigation.
The death was also condemned by the Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad al-Malki, who said that “Israel will pay” for the “murder” of Abu Ain.
Reports said that Abu Ain, a senior figure on Fatah’s revolutionary council, collapsed and died after being struck in the chest at an event where he also inhaled teargas fired by Israeli security forces.
Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, issued a statement expressing “sorrow”. “The event in which Ziad Abu Ain died is under investigation by the IDF,” said Yaalon. “We have proposed a joint investigation to the Palestinian Authority and that a joint autopsy be carried out on Abu Ain’s body. Security stability is important to both sides and we will continue coordination with the PA.”
Mohammed Mohesin, an assistant from Abu Ain’s office who witnessed the incident and travelled in the ambulance to hospital, claimed that over the course of a few minutes one policeman grabbed Abu Ain by the throat, before he was assaulted by two other soldiers a little later.
“When we arrived at where we planned to plant, there were a large number of troops waiting for us who fired teargas,” said Mohesin. “He went to talk to them and asking why they were blocking us. One soldier grabbed him by the throat. A few minutes later another one hit him in the throat while a third soldier with a helmet head butted him in the chest.
“He was on the ground holding his chest but it appeared he could not recognise the people standing around him.” Mohesin’s description of the headbutt was also described by other eyewitnesses but could not be verified by the Guardian.
Video footage of the confrontation – and still photographs – showed Abu Ain being held by the throat by a helmetless officer. A second photograph showed him being held by the shoulders by a border policeman wearing a helmet.
An AFP photographer said he had seen Abu Ain struck in the chest. While some witnesses claimed the minister had been struck by a rifle butt, that was denied by an Israeli journalist present, Channel 10 reporter Roy Sharon, in a tweet.
Abu Ain was taken to a local clinic then to hospital in Ramallah where he was pronounced dead.
An Israeli officer quoted by the Jerusalem Post said there had originally been a minor confrontation over where demonstrators would be allowed to plant. “[Soldiers] then saw a person collapsing. We see on footage from the incident a push [delivered by a border police officer],” the officer said, adding, “I say this with reservation as we are still investigating it.”
Another photograph, published by the Palestinian Maan news website, showed Abu Ain lying on the ground after his collapse.
Shortly before his death, Abu Ain had spoken to television reporters. “This is the terrorism of the occupation, this is a terrorist army, practising its terrorism on the Palestinian people,” he told the official Palestine TV. “We came to plant trees on Palestinian land, and they launch into an attack on us from the first moment. Nobody threw a single stone.”
Confirming the minister’s death, a senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official told the Guardian: “He had gone to plant olive trees in Turmusiya for international human rights day when Israeli soldiers arrived to oppress the demonstration. There are different versions circulating about what happened but he wasn’t shot.”
The minister’s death followed violent clashes in the area the night before, prompted by Israeli settlers’ claims that a horse had been stolen. Palestinian villagers claim it was triggered by settlers stoning Palestinian cars.
There have been months of violent unrest in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Ten Israelis and a foreign visitor have been killed by Palestinians over the past three months, while more than a dozen Palestinians have also been killed, including most of those who carried out the attacks.
Abu Ain, 55, has previously been arrested and imprisoned by Israel. He was extradited from the United States in 1981 over the murder of two Israelis in Tiberias in 1979, and sentenced to life in prison, but released in 1985 in a prisoner exchange.
Besides his role in the PA monitoring Israeli settlements and the separation barrier, Abu Ain was a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council and previously served as deputy Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs.