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Start of a third intifada? Palestinian unrest grows ahead of Obama visit

Thousands of Palestinians - among them masked gunmen - took to the streets of the West Bank for the funeral of a prisoner who died in an Israeli jail. His family says he was tortured while Israel claims it was a heart attack in what threatens to becomes a new uprising. ITV's John Ray reports.

News analysis

TEL AVIV, Israel - For Israel, the good news on the West Bank was that in 2012 for the first time in 39 years terrorism claimed not one Israeli victim.

But in a region where events can overtake expectations with neck-snapping speed, that is not a sign of peace to come. The question occupying Israelis and Palestinians is: Has the third intifada begun?

For weeks Palestinians have been confronting Israeli troops in numerous areas of the West Bank, sometimes as a result of local grievances, sometimes sparked by attacks by Jewish settlers, and most recently, by the death in detention of a Palestinian, who Palestinian officials claim was tortured to death.

Arafat Shalish Jaradat, a 30-year-old Palestinian who was arrested for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, was arrested Feb. 18 and died in prison for no clear reason five days later. He is a Palestinian hero, a rallying call for angry young men and women.

Tensions flared in the West Bank after the death of a Palestinian detainee who died in an Israeli prison. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Israeli analysts, however, believe that the protests are being carefully managed by Palestinian military officials, whose aim is to turn up the heat on the West Bank before President Barack Obama’s March 20 visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah. The theory is that the Palestinians want to make sure that their struggle with Israel tops the agenda, and not Iran or Syria.

If true, it’s a dangerous ploy. Amos Gilad, the Director of the Political-Security Staff in the Defense Ministry, told Army Radio, “It looks as if the Palestinian Authority is trying to walk a delicate tightrope: both raising unrest and displays of violence and not wanting the matter to spin out of control.  The problem is that in this game, you never know when things are spinning out of control.”

Related: Rocket explodes in Israel, first attack from Gaza since truce

Tension in the West Bank has been rising for about the last six months, partly because the United States and Israel have withheld promised funds, causing the Palestinian Authority to say there is no money to pay the salaries of Palestinian police and civil servants. Unemployment has also soared at the same time.  The resulting anger and frustration fuel protests against Israel.

The first intifada, or popular uprising against Israel, was sparked by anger at a traffic accident in Gaza in which an Israeli truck driver killed four Palestinians in Dec. 1987.  According to many, the second intifada was provoked by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the holiest place in Judaisim and the third holiest place in Islam -- known as the Temple Mount or al-Aksa Mosque, respectively. It led to riots and arrests.  

Each initial incident, relatively small in itself, tapped into a cauldron of spontaneous rage, deep-seated anger and frustration and, ultimately, support from the Palestinian leadership, albeit covert, and led to years of violence, arrests and deaths.

So what’s up now? Among Palestinians there is again deep anger at the plight of their roughly five thousand prisoner in Israeli jails, which threatens the rule of Fatah in the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas managed to free more than a thousand of their prisoners from Israeli jails in return for the release of their one Israeli captive, Sgt. Gilad Shalit, who they held for five years. Now Hamas appeals to voters in the West Bank: Give us control of the West Bank and we’ll soon free your prisoners.

The Palestinian Authority government led by President Abu Mazen has to look as if it is doing something, so it is supporting the prisoner protests, even while warning the protesters that it will not tolerate serious violence against Israel -- an explosive contradiction.

One thing that Palestinian and Israeli analysts do agree on: Obama wants to encourage the peace process, but the danger is that the West Bank will explode before he even gets here.

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List," "Breaking News" and "Walking Israel."

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