Israel hits Gaza with airstrikes after rockets intercepted
By ISABEL DEBRE
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli forces on Thursday killed nine Palestinians — including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman — in the deadliest single incident in the occupied West Bank in two decades, Palestinian officials said. Two rockets were fired from Gaza early Friday and Israel responded with airstrikes on the territory, further escalating tensions.
The Israeli military said both rockets were intercepted by its Iron Dome missile defense system. It was the first such attack from the militant Hamas-ruled territory since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power at the head of a far-right government that has pledged a tough line against Palestinian militancy.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the Israeli airstrikes.
The raid in the Jenin refugee camp and the rocket fire increases the risk of a major flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian fighting and casts a shadow on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected trip to the region next week.
Raising the stakes, the Palestinian Authority said it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship and also due to U.S. and Israeli pressure to maintain it.ADVERTISEMENT
The PA already has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp. But the announcement could pave the way for Israel to step up operations it says are needed to prevent attacks.
Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, had earlier threatened revenge for the raid. Violent escalations in the West Bank have previously triggered retaliatory rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which in turn has brought Israeli airstrikes down on the isolated and impoverished territory.
The Israeli strikes early Friday targeted training sites for Palestinian militant groups, the military said. Witnesses and local media reported that Israeli drones fired two missiles at a militant base in central Gaza Strip. The drone strikes usually serve as a warning for larger airstrikes by fighter jets.
On Thursday, Israeli forces went on heightened alert as Palestinians filled the streets across the West Bank, chanting in solidarity with Jenin. President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning, and in the refugee camp, residents dug a mass grave for the dead.
PA spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Abbas had decided to cut security coordination in “light of the repeated aggression against our people, and the undermining of signed agreements,” referring to commitments from the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. He also said the Palestinians planned to file complaints with the U.N. Security Council, International Criminal Court and other international bodies.
The PA last cut security coordination with Israel in 2020, over Netanyahu’s drive to annex the occupied West Bank, which would make a future Palestinian state all but impossible. But six months later, the PA resumed cooperation, signaling the financial importance of the relationship and the Palestinians’ relief at the election of President Joe Biden.
Barbara Leaf, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, said the administration was deeply concerned about the situation and that civilian casualties reported in Jenin were “quite regrettable.” But she also said the Palestinian announcement to suspend security ties was a mistake.
“Obviously, we don’t think this is the right step to take at this moment,” she told reporters, saying the Palestinian vow to bring the matter to the U.N. and the International Criminal Court was problematic.
“We want to see them move back in the other direction,” she said, adding: “They need to engage with each other.”
There have been no serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in well over a decade.
Thursday’s gun battle that left nine dead and 20 wounded erupted when Israel’s military conducted a rare daytime operation in the Jenin camp that it said was meant to prevent an imminent attack on Israelis. The camp, where the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group has a major foothold, has been a focus of near-nightly Israeli arrest raids.
Hamas’ armed wing claimed four of the dead as members, while Islamic Jihad said three others belonged to the group. An earlier statement from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia loosely affiliated with Abbas’ secular Fatah party, claimed one of the dead was a fighter named Izz al-Din Salahat, but it was unclear if he was among those seven militants.
The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the 61-year-old woman killed as Magda Obaid, and the Israeli military said it was looking into reports of her death.
The Israeli military circulated aerial video it said was taken during the battle, showing what appeared to be Palestinians on rooftops hurling stones and firebombs on Israeli forces below. At least one Palestinian can be seen opening fire from a rooftop.
Later in the day, Israeli forces fatally shot a 22-year-old and wounded two others, the Palestinian Health Ministry said, as Palestinians confronted Israeli troops north of Jerusalem to protest Thursday’s raid. Israel’s paramilitary Border Police said they opened fire on Palestinians who launched fireworks at them from close range.
Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks.
Israel’s new national security minister, far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who seeks to grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians, posted a video of himself beaming triumphantly and congratulating security forces.
The raid left a trail of destruction in Jenin. A two-story building, apparently the operation’s target, was a charred wreck. The military said it entered the building to detonate explosives.
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 them.
Both accused the military of firing tear gas at the pediatric ward of a hospital, causing children to choke. Video at the hospital showed women carrying children into a corridor.
The military said forces closed roads to aid the operation, which may have complicated rescue efforts, and that tear gas had likely wafted into the hospital from nearby clashes.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said Thursday marked the single bloodiest West Bank incursion since 2002, at the height of an intense wave of violence known as the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which left scars still visible in Jenin.
“We ask that the international community help the Palestinians against this extremist right-wing government and protect our citizens,” said Rajoub, the Jenin governor.
U.N. Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said he was “deeply alarmed and saddened” by the violence. Condemnations came from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Turkey, which recently reestablished full diplomatic ties with Israel, as well as from neighboring Jordan.
Saudi Arabia criticized the raid, saying it rejected the “serious violations of international law by the Israeli occupation forces.” Qatar, Kuwait and Oman added condemnations.
Tensions over West Bank violence have spilled into Gaza before.
“The response of the resistance to what happened today in Jenin camp will not be delayed,” top Hamas official Saleh Arouri warned on Thursday, hours before the rockets were launched.
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, 30 Palestinians have been killed.
Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations also have 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.
Last year, 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
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 has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that now house 500,000 people. The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for over a decade.