Monday, 03 July 2023 | AP | Jenin (West Bank)
Israel struck targets in a militant stronghold in the occupied West Bank with drones early on Monday and deployed hundreds of troops in the area, in an incursion that resembled the wide-scale military operations carried out during the second Palestinian uprising two decades ago. Palestinian health officials said at least eight Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded.
Troops remained inside the Jenin refugee camp at midday on Monday, pushing ahead with the largest operation in the area during more than a year of fighting.
It came at a time of growing domestic pressure for a tough response to a series of attacks on Israeli settlers, including a shooting attack last month that killed four Israelis.
Black smoke rose from the crowded streets of the camp, exchanges of fire rang out and the buzzing of drones could be heard overhead as the military pressed on.
Residents said electricity was cut off in some parts and military bulldozers plowed through narrow streets, damaging buildings as they cleared the way for Israeli forces. The Palestinians and neighbouring Jordan and Egypt and the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned the violence.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the operation was “proceeding as planned”, but gave no indication when the incursion would end.
Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an army spokesman, said a brigade-size force — roughly 2,000 soldiers — was taking part in the operation, and that military drones had carried out a series of strikes to clear the way for the ground forces.
Although Israel has carried out isolated airstrikes in the West Bank in recent weeks, Hecht said Monday’s series of strikes was an escalation unseen since 2006 — the end of the Palestinian uprising.
Smoke billowed from within the crowded camp, with mosque minarets nearby. Ambulances raced toward a hospital where the wounded were brought in on stretchers.
Lynn Hastings, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the Palestinian areas, said on Twitter that she was “alarmed by scale of Israeli forces operation”, noting the airstrikes in a densely populated refugee camp. She said the UN was mobilising humanitarian aid.
According to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, the military blocked roads within the camp, took over houses and buildings and set up snipers on rooftops. The tactics signalled the operation could drag on for some time.
“There are bulldozers destroying the streets, snipers are inside and on roofs of houses, drones are hitting houses and Palestinians are killed in the streets,” said Jamal Huweil, a political activist in the camp, predicting the operation would fail.
“They can destroy the refugee camp but will fail again because the only solution is the political solution in which a Palestinian state is established and the occupation ends,” he said.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said at least eight Palestinians were killed and 50 people were wounded — 10 critically.
In a separate incident, a 21-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire near the West Bank city of Ramallah, the ministry said.
“Our Palestinian people will not kneel, will not surrender, will not raise the white flag, and will remain steadfast on their land in the face of this brutal aggression,” said Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh.
The Jenin camp and an adjacent town of the same name have been a flashpoint as Israeli-Palestinian violence escalated since spring 2022.
Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, accused archenemy Iran of being behind the violence by funding Palestinian militant groups.
“Due to the funds they receive from Iran, the Jenin camp has become a centre for terrorist activity,” he told foreign journalists, adding that the operation would be conducted in a “targeted manner” to avoid civilian casualties.
Palestinians reject such claims, saying the violence is a natural response to 56 years of occupation since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.
Jenin has long been a bastion for armed struggle against Israel and was a major friction point in the last Palestinian uprising.
In 2002, days after a Palestinian suicide bombing during a large Passover gathering killed 30 people, Israeli troops launched a massive operation in the Jenin camp. For eight days and nights they fought militants street by street, using armoured bulldozers to destroy rows of homes, many of which had been booby-trapped.
Monday’s raid came two weeks after another violent confrontation in Jenin and after the military said a pair of rockets were fired from the area last week. The rockets exploded shortly after launch, causing no damage in Israel, but marked an escalation that has raised concerns in Israel.
But there also may have been political considerations at play. Leading members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is dominated by West Bank settlers and their supporters, have been calling for a broader military response to the ongoing violence in the area.
“Proud of our heroes on all fronts and this morning especially of our soldiers operating in Jenin,” tweeted National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist who recently called for Israel to kill “thousands” of militants if necessary. “Praying for their success.”
Israeli military experts said they expected the operation to wrap up quickly — within hours or a day or two. Prolongued violence and heavy casualties would risk attracting increased international criticism and drawing militants from the Gaza Strip or even Lebanon into the fighting.
“From the Israeli point of view, the intent and interest are to end this very limited operation ASAP and to make sure it does not become a regional event,” said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser.
Islamic Jihad, a militant group with a large presence in Jenin, threatened to launch attacks from its Gaza Strip stronghold if the fighting dragged on.
“If the Israeli aggression against Jenin does not stop, the Palestinian resistance will do what it has to do in a short time,” said Dawood Shehab, a spokesman for the group.
More than 130 Palestinians have been killed this year in the West Bank, part of more than a yearlong spike in violence that has seen some of the worst bloodshed in the area in nearly two decades.
The outburst of violence escalated last year after a spate of Palestinian attacks prompted Israel to step up its raids in the West Bank.
Israel says the raids are meant to beat back militants. The Palestinians say such violence is inevitable in the absence of any political process with Israel and increased West Bank settlement construction and violence by extremist settlers.
Israel says most of those killed have been militants, but stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and people uninvolved in confrontations have also been killed.
Palestinian attacks against Israelis since the start of this year have killed 24 people.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.