Palestinians warn Israeli aggression could 'torpedo' peace talks

Recent spate of killings by Israeli military spark fears that already shaky peace negotiations may collapse

Palestinians carry the body of Saji Darwish, 20, during his funeral in the village of Beitin near the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 11, 2014.
AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

An Israeli airstrike killed three members of the Palestinian armed group Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday near an area where an unmanned Israeli surveillance aircraft crashed earlier in the day, a local official said. The attack, which raised the number of Palestinians killed by the Israeli military to five in two days, sparked warnings from Palestinians that the already-shaky peace process could collapse.

The Israeli military said the Skylark drone experienced a “technical malfunction,” and it was investigating what caused it to go down.

Israel uses drones to monitor activities in the Gaza Strip, which is governed by Palestinian armed group-turned-political-party Hamas.

Members of Hamas said they recovered the aircraft in southern Gaza and handed it over to security forces. No further details were immediately available.

The Israeli army would not say whether the drone's fall into Hamas' hands could provide secrets or technology to the group. The Skylark, however, is known to have safeguards to prevent disclosure of information to unauthorized personnel.

Shortly after the drone crashed, Islamic Jihad said an Israeli airstrike struck the area, killing three of its members.

"Three martyrs have died in a Zionist strike," Ashraf al-Qudra, Gaza’s health ministry spokesman, confirmed to Agence France-Presse.

The Israeli military said the strike was in response to mortar fire that had been directed toward Israel.

"Terrorists must know that there is a price to pay when participating in aggression," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.

A statement from Islamic Jihad confirmed that the three members had been killed while firing mortars, but said they were attempting to prevent "an Israeli incursion east of Khan Yunis."

A witness confirmed Israeli tanks and bulldozers had tried to enter the area before the mortars were fired.

Escalating violence

Late on Monday, Israeli soldiers shot 20-year-old Saji Darwish, a second-year student at Birzeit University in the West Bank, for throwing rocks at Israeli cars traveling to the Jewish settlement of Beit El.

Settlements built on Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, including East Jerusalem, are deemed illegal by the United Nations, and are a major obstacle to ongoing negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Army sources told The Jerusalem Post that an initial military assessment found Darwish posed no threat to soldiers at the time of his killing, and that the military would investigate the matter further.

Clashes following his death left five Palestinians wounded.

The shooting came hours after Israeli guards shot and killed 38-year-old Raed Alaa Addin Zieter, a Jordanian judge of Palestinian origin, at the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan.

Shootings at the Allenby crossing on the West Bank-Jordan border are rare. Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement 20 years ago and have close security ties.

The military said its initial investigation showed that the man tried to grab a rifle from a soldier and shouted “God is great” before soldiers opened fire, first toward his legs and then once again after the suspect began to strangle a soldier.

However, Nazmi Mhana, the director-general of the Palestinian Crossings Authority, told the government news agency WAFA that an Israeli soldier shot the man after a verbal altercation. According to WAFA, eyewitnesses deny claims that Zieter tried to seize the soldier's weapon, saying there was some distance between the two. 

Following strong reprimand by the Jordanian foreign minister to the highest-ranking Israeli diplomat in Jordan, Israel agreed to launch a joint investigation into the killing.

In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said: "Israel regrets the death of Judge Raed Zieter ... and expresses its sympathies to the people and government of Jordan."

Protests erupted near the Israeli embassy in the capital of Jordan on Tuesday in response to the killing.

'Dangerous provocation'

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Tuesday that the "latest Israeli escalation (of violence) can lead to the situation spiraling out of control."

In a statement to the media, Nabil Abu Rudeineh said the recent deaths constituted "a dangerous provocation that will torpedo what's left of the peace process."

Israeli and Palestinian officials resumed shaky peace negotiations in August 2013 after nearly five years of failed attempts by the international community. However, the talks have gotten off to a rocky start, with Israel announcing a series of construction plans for new settlement units.

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of Washington-based think tank The Palestine Center, warned that continued provocations could lead to a third intifada, or uprising against Israel.

“Palestinians paid a high cost during the last intifada at the hands of a brutal Israel repression machine,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I don't believe Palestinians en masse would like to see a return to that, but Israeli actions in recent years and months and especially in recent days are provoking Palestinian temperament,” he said. 

Abu Rudeineh urged the United States or the Quartet (made up of the U.N., U.S., EU and Russia) to intervene. There has been no official response to the request.

Last week, President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House to discuss, among other subjects, Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Obama is expected to also meet with Abbas in Washington later this month.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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