JERUSALEM Israel's homeland security minister voiced concern on Monday that a surge of violent Palestinian protests in the occupied West Bank could erupt into a new Intifada (uprising) if confrontations turned deadly.
A Palestinian's death in an Israeli jail on Saturday and a hunger strike by four other prisoners have raised tension in the West Bank, where stone-throwers have clashed repeatedly with Israeli soldiers in recent days.
"The previous two Intifadas ... came about as a result of a high number of dead (during protests)," minister Avi Dichter told Israel Radio. "Fatalities are almost a proven recipe for a sharper escalation."
Israeli soldiers turned out in force on Monday for the funeral of Arafat Jaradat, 30, who was arrested just one week ago for throwing stones at Israeli cars in the West Bank.
Palestinian officials say he died after being tortured. Israel said an autopsy, carried out with a Palestinian coroner present, was inconclusive and that injuries, such as broken ribs, could have been caused by efforts to revive him.
Palestinian frustration has been fuelled by Israel's settlement expansion in the West Bank, a peace process in limbo since 2010 and a persisting rift between President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority and Hamas Islamists who run Gaza.
"We have no choice but to continue the popular resistance and escalate it in the face of the occupation, whether it be the army or the settlers," Mahmoud Aloul, a senior member of Abbas's Fatah movement, told Reuters.
Dichter said Israel had to tread carefully in dealing with any protests, accusing the Palestinians of trying to portray themselves as victims before U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to the region next month.
"I don't think the Palestinian Authority will gain from an Intifada, just as it didn't achieve anything from the first or second Intifadas," he said.
"But I would say that after conducting themselves with poor and warped thinking over the years, they don't always recognise what's in their best interests," he added.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Abbas aide, said Israel's treatment of prisoners and anti-Palestinian violence by Jewish settlers were "the cause of the deterioration".
Israel demanded on Sunday that the Palestinian Authority put a lid on the protests, many of which have taken place in areas outside the PA's jurisdiction. Abbas has said he would not allow a third armed Intifada, but Israeli officials cautioned that events could spiral out of control.
"They (the Palestinians) are trying to drag us to a situation where there will be dead children," Dichter said.
Palestinians have rallied to the cause of the four hunger-strikers, two of whom are being held without trial on suspicion of anti-Israeli activity.
Some 4,700 Palestinians are in Israeli jails and Palestinians see them as heroes in a statehood struggle. The death of any of the hunger-strikers, one of whom has been refusing food, off and on, for more than 200 days, would likely lead to more widespread violence.
The first Palestinian uprising began in 1987 and ended in 1993, when the Oslo interim peace accords were signed.
The second Intifada broke out in 2000 after the failure of talks on a final peace agreement. Over the following seven years, more than 1,000 Israelis died, half of them in suicide attacks mostly against civilians. More than 4,500 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces.
(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Alistair Lyon)