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Muted response to minister's killing confirms that Palestinian lives don't matter

On Wednesday 10 December, a protest took place in the West Bank village of Turmusiya, near Ramallah. Dozens of foreign and Palestinian activists were demonstrating against land confiscations by Israel. They planned to plant olive tree saplings near the illegal Jewish settlement of Shiloh, on a patch of land that Palestinians believe is soon to be annexed by Israel. The protest turned violent after clashes with a group of about 15 Israeli soldiers. Witnesses say that a large amount of tear gas was fired, and there were scuffles between protestors and soldiers.

This much is not unusual. What distinguished this case was that among the protestors was Ziad Abu Ein, a senior minister in the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank administration headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Abu Ein was a minister without portfolio, who dealt with the issue of Israeli settlements and the separation wall. He was involved in the clashes and died from injuries sustained therein as he was being rushed to hospital.

The exact details of what happened are unclear; there have been numerous conflicting reports. Medics said that he died from complications relating to tear gas exposure, while several witnesses – including photographers from Reuters and AFP – maintain that he was hit and shoved by soldiers. Images have been circulated which show Abu Ein lying on the ground, clutching his chest. Shortly before his death, the minister spoke to reporters from Palestine TV. "This is the terrorism of the occupation, this is a terrorist army, practicing its terrorism on the Palestinian people," he said, sounding short of breath. "We came to plant trees on Palestinian land, and they launched into an attack on us from the first moment. Nobody threw a single stone."

Whatever the exact reason for his death, the incident has caused outrage in Palestine. Dozens gathered at the site where the protest took place, throwing stones at security forces and burning tyres. Abbas announced three days of national mourning and described the attack as "a barbaric act which we cannot be silent about or accept." Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki called the incident "murder" and said that "Israel will pay."

For its part, Israel has ordered an investigation into Abu Ein's death, with Jordanian officials present at the post-mortem. Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon issued a statement expressing "sorrow" for the death. "Security and stability is important to both sides and we will continue coordination with the PA," he insisted.

The international response, too, has largely focused on this question of stability. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply saddened" by this "brutal death", but also urged "all sides to exercise maximum restraint and avoid escalation." The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said that the Israeli soldiers' excessive use of force was "deeply worrying" and called for an immediate investigation, adding: "This is a dramatic reminder for the entire international community of the deteriorating situation on the ground." The US also called for a prompt investigation into the death. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to have talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, but he did not make a personal statement.

Abu Ein, 55, was sentenced to life imprisonment in Israel in 1982 for his role in a fatal bombing, and then released in a prisoner swap in 1985. He was also the highest-ranking Palestinian official to be killed by Israeli security forces for many years.

Given that tensions in the West Bank are already running high, it is on one level unsurprising that international bodies have called for peace and an avoidance of escalation. On another level, however, the muted response is shocking. It was a high-ranking government minister who was killed, and not even a minister for Hamas, but for the Palestinian Authority, the body with which the West is comfortable to negotiate and support.

Amid all the calls for a measured response, there has been remarkably little condemnation of the culture of excessive force by Israeli soldiers that caused his death. It is correct to call for an investigation before pointing fingers at individuals, but certain facts of the case are indisputable: this was a senior politician exercising his right to peaceful protest, and he was killed. If the situation was reversed and an Israeli government minister had been killed in similar circumstances, it is difficult to imagine such a quiet response from international powers. Given the huge scale loss of civilian life in Gaza earlier this year, such a response will simply add to the impression that many in Palestine and around the world already have: quite simply, Palestinian lives do not matter.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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