RAMALLAH, WEST BANK – Palestinian leaders said peace negotiations were threatened Monday after Israeli security forces fatally shot three Palestinian men during an early-morning clash in the Qalandia refugee camp there.
It was one of the deadliest incidents in the West Bank since 2009, when three Palestinians were killed in Nablus after a stand-off with Israeli forces. In addition to the three dead in the incident Monday, 15 were wounded and six were in critical condition in Ramallah hospitals, according to Palestinian officials.
A senior member of the Palestinian Authority said that a gathering scheduled for Monday, as part of the U.S.-led peace negotiations, was postponed to protest the killings.
Citing a promise to keep initial talks secret, Israeli officials refused to comment on whether a meeting was scheduled or cancelled.
“I can assure you that no meetings have been canceled,” State Department spokeswoman Mari Harf said.
“The parties are engaged in serious and sustained negotiations,” she said.
The incident began when members of the Israeli border patrol, in civilian cars and clothing, arrived before dawn in the tough Qalandia refugee camp at the southern edge of Ramallah to arrest a “terror operative,” according to military officials.
As the officers were searching for a man named Yossif Khatib, who was recently released from prison, groups of young men who had been alerted to their presence arrived to confront them, followed by Israeli soldiers who came to assist the border patrol, according to eyewitnesses and military spokesmen.
The Israeli military said the Palestinians attacked their forces using cement blocks and rocks, and posed an imminent threat to their lives. “Large, violent crowds such as this, which significantly outnumber security forces, leave no other choice but to resort to live fire in self defense,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.
Palestinians said the Israelis acted with excessive force.
Video taken at the scene shows two Israeli jeeps slowly driving down a street in Qalandia as men on the rooftops bombard the vehicles with cement blocks, but it was not clear whether the rock throwing in the video occurred before or after the killings.
At the funeral for the three dead, senior Palestinian leaders and angry residents said they believed Israel provoked the attack by arriving in the refugee camp in the morning, when people were going to work, school and mosque.
Israeli military officials said the attempt to arrest their suspect was a “nighttime incursion” that led to a riot. Video showed and witnesses said that the violence took place after sunrise.
“It is clear to us that the occupiers do not want a peace process and so the Israelis create these kinds of incidents,” said Mahmoud al-Aloul, the former governor the Nablus district and a member of the central committee of the Fatah political party.
As members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade fired automatic weapons in the air, a local Muslim cleric told the mourners that “the Israelis don’t want peace. They want to shed our blood.”
Later, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told reporters “the continued criminal acts by the Israelis, alongside the continued settlement construction, expose the true intentions of Israel’s government, and the actions it takes to foil the peace talks.”
Rudeineh called on U.S. officials to intervene now “to thwart the collapse of the negotiations.”
Omar Hammad, a resident of Qalandia who said he was an eyewitness to Monday’s events, said Israeli security forces shot one victim through the chest from the back of a jeep and another while he was on a roof top.
“I have seen many incursions by Israeli soldiers into our neighborhood,” Hammad said. “It seemed that this time they came to kill.”
Fadi Matteer, 27, said he was coming into Qalandia when he heard sporadic gunfire. He said Palestinians were throwing rocks and the Israeli forces “got scared and started shooting.” Matteer, bandaged, said he was shot in the right arm and that the shrapnel will be removed later this week.
In the weeks since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry persuaded Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to return to the table for talks, both sides have accused the other of attempting to derail the process.
The Palestinians are angered over announcements of thousands of new units to be built in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while the Israelis have accused the Palestinians of inciting violence against them in their schools and textbooks.