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Palestinian tensions set to persist until Obama visit

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Clashes that flared in the West Bank after a Palestinian died in Israeli custody are unlikely to turn into a third intifada, but each side will use them when US President Barack Obama visits, commentators say.

After several days of unrest following the death of Arafat Jaradat at the weekend, a measure of calm returned to the West Bank on Tuesday, despite an early-morning rocket from Gaza.

The rocket, the first to hit southern Israel in three months, was fired by militants from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of the Fatah movement of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, in response to the death of Jaradat, whom they said was one of their men.

But Israeli military officials quoted by Maariv newspaper expressed optimism that the "wave of riots would subside and would not lead to a third intifada."

The military had on Monday noted "a drop in the number of incidents" while assessing that "the violence would continue at least until the arrival of US President Barack Obama on March 20."

The top-level trip, which will include talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, will be the first time Obama has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories since taking over as president in 2008.

Senior military officials quoted by Israeli public radio said the army had been ordered to exercise "maximum restraint in order to reduce the risk that Palestinians would be killed and give them a pretext to restart the violence ahead of Obama's visit."

"The situation risks being pushed to the limits, above all in the runup to Obama's visit," said Issam Abu Bakr, a Palestinian who has organised some of the demonstrations in the central West Bank.

"We will not stop demanding a timetable for the release of the prisoners."

Earlier this month, Abbas urged the international community to intervene over the fate of four detainees on long-term hunger strike. Public anger about the prisoners could create a situation which "will be impossible to control and it will deteriorate across the Palestinian territories," he warned.

He also promised that the issue of "our brave prisoners will top the agenda" in his talks with Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry when they arrive in the region.

Both sides deny responsibility for the violence which has been focused on the fate of prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Earlier this week, Abbas accused Israel of deliberately seeking to stoke unrest in the West Bank.

"The Israelis want chaos and we know it but we won't let them," he said, insisting the Palestinians would not "be dragged" into playing along.

But Israel responded by demanding the Palestinian Authority "act responsibly to prevent incitement and violence, which will only exacerbate the situation," Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli premier, told AFP.

"Ultimately, not violence but peace talks are what is needed."

Security officials quoted in Maariv said the mass demonstrations across the West Bank were aimed at raising the temperature to ensure that resolution of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a central element of Obama's visit.

Until now, the White House has kept expectations deliberately low, saying Obama has no plans to push new proposals to break the more than two-year deadlock in peace talks.

Aware of the stakes of the upcoming visit, Washington on Monday sent "a clear message to both sides," a State Department spokesman said.

"We urge both Palestinians and Israelis not only to refrain from provocative actions that could destabilise conditions on the ground but to consider positive steps, just re-establish trust and de-escalate the current tensions," he said.

President Shimon Peres on Tuesday said neither side had any interest in fuelling the fire.

"The Palestinian Authority knows that returning to violence would be a catastrophe, that's what their leaders are saying so we must act together to bring about calm," he said.

Abbas wants to return to peace talks in tandem with a freeze on Jewish settlement construction with the aim of securing a state along the lines which existed before the 1967 Six Day War. But he also wants the release of prisoners held by Israel, particularly those jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a return to direct talks -- but with out such preconditions.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130226/palestinian-tensions-set-persist-until-obama-visit