Israel on Monday began a large-scale military raid with drone strikes and hundreds of troops in the northern occupied West Bank, killing seven Palestinians in what the army labeled an “extensive counterterrorism effort.”
The operation under the hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the biggest of its kind in years, with bulldozers, armored vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Palestinian gunmen wearing balaclavas fired toward Israeli soldiers as sirens wailed. Other Palestinians threw stones.
Israel had already stepped up operations in the northern West Bank, home to Jenin city and its adjacent refugee camp, which is a stronghold of Palestinian armed groups and where there has been a spate of attacks on Israelis as well as attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian communities.
“We are striking the terrorism hub (of Jenin) with great strength,” Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told reporters.
The Palestinian health ministry said seven people were killed — matching the toll from an Israeli army raid in Jenin refugee camp two weeks ago which saw rare use of helicopter missile fire.
“There is bombing from the air and an invasion from the ground,” Mahmoud al-Saadi, director of the Palestinian Red Crescent in Jenin, told AFP.
“Several houses and sites have been bombed… smoke is rising from everywhere.”
The Israeli army said its forces had struck a “joint operations center,” which served as a command post for the “Jenin Brigade”, a local militant group.
The area is nominally under the control of president Mahmud Abbas‘s Palestinian Authority, which has partial administrative control in the West Bank.
The army said it targeted an “observation and reconnaissance” site, as well as a weapons storage facility and a hideout for those alleged to have carried out attacks on Israeli targets in recent months.
Violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has worsened since early last year, including under the latest administration of Netanyahu which took power in December, a coalition between his Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies.
Netanyahu’s coalition contains hardline West Bank settlers, including extreme-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Footage of @IDF's strikes in Jenin tonight. Comes right after PIJ's secretary-general's interview showcasing #Iran's supreme leader's instructions to "move from a state of calm to one of resistance” in the West Bank. pic.twitter.com/8MiXL7gSAQ
— Jason Brodsky (@JasonMBrodsky) July 2, 2023
Caught ‘by Surprise’
“People were aware that we were probably going in”, army spokesman Richard Hecht told reporters, “but the method of striking from the air”, with a target in the core of the camp, “basically caught them by surprise,”
He said troops remained inside the camp but were after “specific targets” and “not trying to hold ground.”
“We are still seizing weapons and ammunitions” and “infrastructure,” Hecht said, adding the focus was on Jenin camp and that there was no specific timeline for ending the operation.
It involved “brigade-level” troop numbers, he said.
An army statement said that one soldier was lightly injured” by Israeli army grenade shrapnel.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967.
Excluding annexed east Jerusalem, the territory is now home to around 490,000 Israelis who live in settlements considered illegal under international law.
The Palestinians, who seek their own independent state, want Israel to withdraw from all land it occupied in the Six-Day War and to dismantle all Jewish settlements.
However, Netanyahu has pledged to “strengthen settlements” and has expressed no interest in reviving peace talks, which have been moribund since 2014.
In a separate incident a Palestinian youth was also killed by Israeli fire near the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Palestinian health ministry said.
The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad said in a statement that “all options are open to strike the enemy (Israel) in response to its aggression in Jenin.”
In neighboring Jordan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Sinan Majali emphasized “that the ongoing escalation constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law, as well as Israel’s obligations as the occupying power.”
Israel’s raid last month saw helicopter missile fire as part of efforts to clear the way for Israeli troops who encountered strong resistance including an explosive device that hit an armored vehicle.
In another rare action that same week, the Israeli military said it carried out a drone strike to kill three members of a “terrorist cell” in the West Bank.
Following last month’s Jenin raid, four Israelis were killed when two Palestinian gunmen attacked a petrol station near the West bank settlement of Eli. The assailants were shot dead.
Since the start of the year at least 184 Palestinians, 25 Israelis, a Ukrainian, and an Italian have been killed, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources from both sides.
They include, on the Palestinian side, combatants and civilians, and on the Israeli side, mostly civilians and three members of the Arab minority.