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A Palestinian prisoner who was wounded in rioting at an Israeli desert prison died early Tuesday, prompting Palestinian threats of revenge and accusations that the man was abused by Israeli authorities.
The prisoner's death, along with an Israeli raid in the West Bank that killed two Palestinian militants, raised tensions at a time when the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are trying to move forward with preparations for a US-sponsored peace conference later this year.
The Israeli Prisons Service said the wounded man died overnight at an Israeli hospital, hours after he was hit by a "non-lethal weapon" fired by guards during Monday's riot at the Ketziot prison. The prison guards' lives were in danger when they opened fire, it said.
The prisons service did not elaborate on the cause of death and did not identify the dead inmate, saying only that he was 30 years old and had been serving a two-year sentence for harboring a wanted militant.
Ashraf Ajrami, minister of prisoner affairs in the Palestinian government, identified the dead man as Mohammed al-Ashkar, a member of the Islamic Jihad terrorist group. He said the relatively short sentence suggested his offense must have been minor.
Violence erupted before dawn Monday at Ketziot - where about 2,200 Palestinians are imprisoned for security offenses - when guards began searching prisoners' bunks for contraband. Ketziot is set up like a military camp, and security prisoners are quartered in tents rather than buildings.
Prisoners torched several tents and attacked guards, injuring 15 of them, the prisons service said. When anti-riot forces moved in to quell the riot, 15 prisoners were injured and four of whom were taken to the hospital, including the man who later died. The other injured prisoners' lives were not in danger, the prisons service said.
Ajrami said the overnight sweep that sparked the rioting violated an agreement between the prisons service and inmates barring nighttime searches.
"It was intended as an oppressive act," he said.
Ian Domnitz, a prison service spokesman, said there was no such agreement with the prisoners.
Israel is holding 11,000 Palestinian prisoners for security offenses ranging from membership in terrorist organizations to planning and carrying out attacks against Israelis. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, shootings and rocket attacks.
Their release is a central Palestinian demand and successive Palestinian governments have had a dedicated minister for the prisoner issue.
In the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Tuesday, about 500 people staged a downtown rally protesting al-Ashkar's death and calling for the release of all Palestinians held by Israel.
About 200 people joined a similar march in Ramallah, where mothers carried pictures of their imprisoned sons and others held posters of prisoners. "We want the prisoners, not negotiations (with Israel)," the crowd chanted.
In Gaza City, about 300 demonstrators called for the release of prisoners. Nidal Saraffati, father of a 24-year-old man jailed in Israel, said the prisoners are subjected to regular abuses and their plight should unite all Palestinians.
"This is an attack on the family and the prisoners as well," he said. "We ask all the brothers to leave internal fighting behind. We have one common enemy."
Mushir al-Masri, a lawmaker with the Hamas militant group, vowed revenge. "The resistance factions will not stand idly by and all options are open to us to face this dangerous policy," he said.
Also Tuesday, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian terrorists during a fierce gunbattle in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, according to witnesses and army reports. The army said one soldier was lightly wounded in the exchange of fire, which erupted shortly after it surrounded a home of wanted men. Six people were arrested in the operation, it added.
Islamic Jihad said the two dead men were members, and one of them was a top leader in the West Bank.