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Senior Fatah officials demonstrated alongside hundreds of Palestinians and left-wing activists at the Bitunia crossing yesterday against the arrest of Fatah Central Committee member Abbas Zaki earlier in the week.

This was the first time since the first intifada that a top-ranking Fatah member was arrested for civil protest against the occupation. Zaki's remand extension is to be brought before a military tribunal in the Ofer compound today.

Zaki was arrested after taking part in Sunday's demonstration against Israel's policy in Jerusalem and its infringement on the Christians' freedom of religion. Other senior Fatah officials and activists of the Popular Struggle Committee in the Bethlehem area also joined the demonstration.

Fourteen people were arrested along with Zaki. Four Israeli women and a foreign activist were released a few hours later, and the 10 Palestinians were taken to the Ofer military prison.

The protesters tried to break through the crossing to reach Ofer Prison, where Zaki and the other detained officials are being held. The crossing is part of the separation fence and roadblocks preventing free Palestinian movement in south-west Ramallah.

One of the demonstrators said Border Police officers fired tear gas at them. At the same time protesters threw stones at the officers, three of whom were lightly injured.

Two young demonstrators were arrested. One of them was a 16-year-old who was sitting in his father's car when the policemen pulled him out of it, an eye witness said.

The demonstrations on Sunday and yesterday mark a new stage in protests against the separation fence led by the popular struggle committees. Fatah senior officials are no longer content with supporting the struggle in words, but join the demonstrations against the soldiers.

Senior Fatah officials such as Jibril Rajoub, former head of the Preventative Security service in the West Bank, former Nablus governor Mahmoud al-Alul, Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club and two ministers in Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's cabinet took part in the demonstration.

Fayyad himself participated in one of the demonstrations marking Land Day on Tuesday. Since being appointed prime minister Fayyad has supported popular, unarmed activity against the occupation and has allocated funds to support communities and villages that were directly damaged by the separation fence and settlers' harassment.

On Tuesday Fatah Central Committee members gathered in Ramallah, calling to intensify the popular struggle. Nabil Sha'ath pledged that Fatah would play a central role in the unarmed struggle. "We will be visible at all the popular struggle sites," he was cited by the Maan news agency.