RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli forces clashed with Palestinian protesters throughout the occupied West Bank on Friday, capping a week of violence amid a hunger strike by four Palestinians in Israeli jails.
Tension and anticipation is rising in the West Bank a month before U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah, though he has announced no concrete plans to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled for three years.
From the precincts of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, both one of Islam’s holiest sites and revered by Jews as the site of their Biblical temple, youths threw stones at Israeli police after Friday prayers.
Dozens of Israeli officers briefly entered the politically sensitive compound. Witnesses said officers fired tear gas and threw percussion grenades at the demonstrators as bystanders and elderly worshippers ran for cover.
A police spokesman said no tear gas was fired, but that protesters were throwing firecrackers.
The old city of Hebron, a bitterly contested city in the southern West Bank sown heavily with Israeli settlers, echoed with percussion grenades hurled by Israeli forces at some 1,500 Palestinian protesters.
At a military checkpoint near the northern city of Nablus and outside a military prison in the central West Bank, Israeli forces worked to clear away makeshift roadblocks and fired rubber bullets towards stone-throwing Palestinians.
There were dozens of light injuries from gas inhalation and rubber and aluminium bullets, witnesses said.
Palestinians seek statehood in territories Israel captured in a 1967 war. Peace talks broke down in 2010 over Palestinian objections to Israel expanding settlements on occupied land. Israel has called for resuming the talks without preconditions.
The status of four hunger-striking Palestinian detainees was in limbo as Israeli civilian courts failed to rule definitively in hearings held for two of them this week, referring their multi-decade sentences back to military courts.
Israel convicted the men of taking part in militant attacks and freed them along with hundreds of other prisoners in a 2011 swap for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held in Hamas-ruled Gaza for five years, only to re-arrest them soon afterward.
Lawyers and officials representing the men, who were accused by Israel of violating the terms of their release, say their cases are locked in a legal maze and Palestinian officials hope Egyptian mediation could convince Israel to free them.
“Our prisoners ...(on) hunger strike are engaging in a true battle, a battle of glory against the tyrant,” said Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza’s Hamas prime minister. “No one of us will forget the prisoners. No one would enjoy being with his children at home as long as those heroes continued to suffer in jails.”
The hunger strikers have told representatives of an independent Israeli medical group, Physicians for Human Rights, that they are taking water but refusing medicines and nutrients.
There is little exact information on the health of the strikers, whose on-off hunger strikes have ranged from around 80 to over 200 days, as they have repeatedly refused treatment and been denied regular access to independent doctors.
Israel holds around 4,700 Palestinians in its prison on charges ranging from throwing stones to killing Israelis.
Palestinians widely regard them as heroes of their national struggle against Israel and want them all freed.
Reporting By Noah Browning; Editing by Mark Heinrich