Large crowds turn out for Palestinian minister's funeral

By Noah Browning and Ali Sawafta RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Thousands of mourners turned out on Thursday for a Palestinian state funeral for a minister who died after being grabbed by the neck by an Israeli policeman at a West Bank protest, an incident that has raised tensions with Israel. To the sounds of drums and bagpipes, Ziad Abu Ein's Palestinian flag-draped coffin was carried by pallbearers in military uniform along a red carpet at the presidential compound in the city of Ramallah. The funeral procession then streamed through the streets to a cemetery as people fired in the air. Crowds of men in leather jackets and black-and-white checkered scarves used mobile phones to film the funeral on a cold but sunny afternoon. His death on Wednesday came at a time of heightened tension between Israel and the Palestinians following months of violent unrest in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israeli and Palestinian officials issued conflicting accounts over the results of a joint Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli autopsy on Abu Ein. He had been among about 100 people protesting against a Jewish settlement by planting olive trees in a village when Israeli soldiers and border policemen fired tear gas and sound grenades A scuffle ensued in which a border policeman pushed Abu Ein and grabbed his neck with one hand. Footage of the incident and pictures taken by Reuters do not show Abu Ein responding with any violence. Minutes later the minister began to look faint and fell to the ground, clasping his chest. He died on his way to hospital. Shortly before his death, Abu Ein spoke to television reporters, sounding hoarse and short of breath. Both the Palestinian and the Israeli pathologist reports said Abu Ein died of a coronary blockage caused by hemorrhage. But the Palestinian doctor said the bleeding resulted from injury and his Israeli counterpart said it was likely brought on by stress. Abu Ein had a pre-existing heart condition, Israel's Health Ministry said, and the blood vessels in his heart were found to be more than 80 percent blocked by plaque. A senior Palestinian official, Hussein al-Sheikh, said earlier that Abu Ein, 55, had died from "being struck, inhaling tear gas and a delay in providing medical attention". Palestinian officials in the West Bank have indicated they may call off security coordination with Israel following the incident, though that step appeared unlikely. "This is a criminal act," said Samir Tamim, a merchant who attended the funeral. Hoping to head off any escalation, Israel reinforced troops in the West Bank and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said he regretted the death of Abu Ein, who was serving a life term in an Israeli jail over a 1979 bombing that killed two Israeli youths when he was released in a prisoner exchange in 1985. (Reporting By Ali Sawafta and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

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