JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) — Israeli forces killed at least nine Palestinians, including a 60-year-old woman, and wounded several others during a raid in a flashpoint area of the occupied West Bank on Thursday, Palestinian officials said, in one of the deadliest days in years in the territory.
A gun battle broke out when the Israeli military conducted a rare daytime operation in the Jenin refugee camp that it said was meant to prevent an imminent attack against Israelis. The camp, where the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group has a major foothold, has been a focus of nearly a year of Israeli arrest raids.
At least one of the dead was identified by Palestinians as a militant, but it was not clear how many others were affiliated with armed groups.
After a security briefing, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant directed forces in the occupied West Bank and on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip to go on heightened alert.
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have soared since Israel launched the nightly raids in the West Bank last spring, following a spate of Palestinian attacks. The conflict has only intensified this month, as Israel’s far-right government came to office and pledged to take a hard line against the Palestinians.
Amid the spike in violence, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to arrive in the region in the coming days and push for steps that might improve daily life for the Palestinians.
Images published by Palestinian media showed the charred exterior walls of a two-story building and cinderblocks and other debris scattered on a street. The military said it entered the building in order to detonate explosives it said were being used by the suspects.
After troops withdrew from the area following the three-hour operation, several cars were overturned, their windshields and windows shattered as residents milled about inspecting the damage.
Palestinian Health Minister May Al-Kaila said paramedics struggled to reach the wounded during the fighting, while Akram Rajoub, the governor of Jenin, said the military prevented emergency workers from evacuating the wounded.
Both officials accused the military of firing tear gas at the pediatric ward of a hospital, causing children to choke. Video from the hospital showed women carrying children into a corridor of the hospital.
The military said forces closed roads to facilitate their operation, which may have complicated the efforts of rescue teams, and that tear gas had likely wafted into the hospital from the clashes nearby.
Jenin hospital identified the woman killed as Magda Obaid and the Israeli military said it was looking into reports of her death. The Palestinian Health Ministry earlier identified another one of the dead as Saeb Azriqi, 24, who was brought to a hospital in critical condition after being shot, and died from his wounds. And the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade — an armed militia affiliated with Fatah, the secular political party that controls the Palestinian Authority — claimed one of the dead, Izz al-Din Salahat, as a fighter. The ministry said at least 20 people were wounded.
According to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, May 14, 2021, was the deadliest day in the West Bank since 2002. Thirteen Palestinians were killed that day in various confrontations.
Internationally-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning and ordered flags to fly at half-staff. Palestinian officials called on the international community to speak out.
“We ask that the international community help the Palestinians against this extremist right-wing government and protect our citizens,” Rajoub, the Jenin governor, said.
The U.N.’s Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said he was “deeply alarmed and saddened” by the violence and called for calm. Condemnations came from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Turkey, which recently reestablished full diplomatic ties with Israel, as well as from neighboring Jordan and the militant Islamic Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip.
Tensions over violence in the West Bank have in the past spilled into Gaza.
“The response of the resistance to what happened today in Jenin camp will not be delayed,” warned top Hamas official Saleh Arouri.
The Islamic Jihad branch in the coastal enclave has repeatedly fought against Israel, most recently in a fierce three-day clash last summer that killed dozens of Palestinians and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to B’Tselem. So far this year, 29 Palestinians have been killed.
Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations have also been killed. So far this year, not including Thursday, one-third of the Palestinians killed by Israeli troops or civilians had ties to armed groups.
Some 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis last year.
Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim those territories for their hoped-for state.
Israel’s new far-right government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and propped up by ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has pledged to put West Bank settlement expansion at the top of its priority list and has already announced a series of punitive steps against the Palestinians for pushing the U.N.’s highest judicial body to give its opinion on the Israeli occupation.
Israel has already established dozens of settlements in the West Bank, which are now home to some 500,000 people.
The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as negotiations to end the conflict have been moribund for more than a decade.