RAMALLAH, West Bank—Israel’s health ministry said Thursday that a prominent Palestinian cabinet member died from a heart blockage during a confrontation with Israeli forces in the West Bank, challenging claims that the death was caused by a blow from soldiers.
An autopsy — conducted Wednesday hours after the death of Ziad Abu Ein — showed he suffered from a “blockage of the coronary artery,” one of the main blood supplies to the heart, the ministry said.
But the Palestinian doctor involved in the autopsy told the Associated Press that the 55-year-old Abu Ein died as a result of a blow to his body, not of natural causes.
And a top Palestinian official, Hussein al-Sheikh, told the Reuters news agency that Jordanian and Palestinian doctors involved in the examination said he had died from “being struck, inhaling tear gas and a delay in providing medical attention.”
Any disagreement over the cause of death could become a rallying point for further Palestinian protests and political fallout linked to Abu Ein, who directed the agency tasks with opposing Israeli settlements and the barrier separating Israel and the West Bank.
The death sparked outrage from the Palestinian leadership and an appeal by a U.N. envoy for a full Israeli probe. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced three days of mourning and halted security coordination with Israel.
The autopsy found there were signs of internal bleeding and some pressure on the neck. The report further noted the poor state of Abu Ein’s health, especially his heart, which it said “made him more sensitive to stress.”
There were signs that he had previously suffered heart attacks, it said, adding that the findings were preliminary and required validation from laboratory results and previous health records.
The Israeli news Web site Ynet quoted Hen Kugal, the Israeli doctor who took part in the autopsy, as saying that the disagreement with the Palestinians stemmed from damage on the victim’s front teeth, tongue and windpipe, which could have been the result of resuscitation attempts or an attack.
Thousands of mourners, meanwhile, packed into the official government compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah to attend Abu Ein’s funeral Thursday, one of the largest crowds seen in many years for either a demonstration or a funeral. Abu Ein’s coffin was draped in a Palestinian national flag.
The ceremony was somber but dignified, attended by Palestinian political leaders and dignitaries.
Palestinian National Council member, Tayseer Naserallah, who spent time in an Israeli jail with Abu Ein and was a close friend, said that his death could represent a turning point in the rise of popular resistance among Palestinians. He also said it could mark a profound change in relations between Israel and Palestine.
Palestinian witnesses said Abu Ein was punched and kicked by Israeli border officers, who fired tear gas at the demonstrators during a march in the West Bank to protest land seizures. With numerous observers on the scene, video clips quickly began to circulate on news and social media sites.
One of Abu Ein’s assistants, who was with him during the confrontation, said his boss was punched in the throat, kicked and became overwhelmed by tear gas.
Family members suspect that Abu Ein suffered a heart attack after being assaulted during the clashes.
The Israeli military said soldiers “had attempted to halt the progress of the rioters” toward a nearby Israeli outpost by “using riot dispersal means.” Later on, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a message to the Palestinian Authority saying that the Israeli government also would investigate the incident.
An image posted by Sky News Arabia showed an Israeli soldier apparently grabbing the Palestinian politician by the throat. A video clip from Russia Today showed Abu Ein on the ground and clutching his chest behind a row of Israeli troops facing off against demonstrators near the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, where the march was held to protest Israeli land seizures.
Abu Ein was especially well known as a spokesman for Palestinians serving long sentences in Israeli prisons for terrorist attacks and political activities.
Mohammed Muhaisan, Abu Ein’s assistant, said the minister exchanged harsh words with a border police officer, who grabbed him by the throat. A few minutes later, Muhaisan said, Abu Ein was subjected to a “karate chop” in the neck and was “hit with a punch or a helmet to his chest.”
The aide also said that a large quantity of tear gas was fired at the crowd, causing the minister to fall to the ground and turn rigid.
Muhaisan said Abu Ein was quickly taken by ambulance to a local clinic and then to a hospital in central Ramallah. The minister was unresponsive and could not be revived, Muhaisan said.
The U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert H. Serry, said he was deeply saddened by the minister’s death and urged Israeli authorities to conduct a “prompt, thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstance of his death.”
Ala’a Abu Ein, Abu Ein’s brother, described him as one of the leaders of the second intifada, or popular uprising, a decade ago, which included suicide bombings inside Israeli territory and a harsh Israeli military crackdown on Palestinians.
The brother suggested that the Israelis had intended to seek out and assault Abu Ein at the demonstration.
Israeli reports said Abu Ein was a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, which is also known as the Abu Nidal Organization and carried out terror attacks in the 1980s.
Abu Ein was given a life sentence in Israel in 1982 after being extradited from the United States over the killing of two Israelis in Tiberias in 1979. He was released in a prisoner swap in 1985.
During the second Palestinian uprising, he spent a year in detention in 2002 without being charged, the Associated Press reported.
Eglash reported from Jerusalem and Deane from London.