Soaring tensions cast shadow ahead of planned visit to the region of U.S. Secretary of State
Gaza militants fired rockets and Israel carried out airstrikes early Friday as tensions soared following an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank that killed nine Palestinians, including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman.
It was the deadliest single raid in the territory in over two decades. The flare-up in violence poses an early test for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government and casts a shadow on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's expected trip to the region next week.
Palestinian militants fired five rockets at Israel, the military said. Three were intercepted, one fell in an open area and another fell short inside Gaza. Israel carried out a series of airstrikes at what it said were militant targets. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Thursday's deadly raid in the Jenin refugee camp was likely to reverberate on Friday as Palestinians gather for weekly Muslim prayers that are often followed by protests. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, had earlier threatened revenge for the raid.
Raising the stakes, the Palestinian Authority (PA) 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.
Hamas threatened revenge for raid
The Palestinian Authority 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 Hamas militant base before fighter jets struck it, causing four large explosions.
Air raid sirens went off in southern Israel as the initial two rockets were fired and then again after the airstrikes, when the militants fired the other three rockets.
Israeli forces on heightened alert
On Thursday, Israeli forces went on heightened alert as Palestinians filled the streets across the West Bank, chanting in solidarity with Jenin. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning, and in the refugee camp, residents dug a mass grave for the dead.
Palestinian Authority spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Abbas had decided to cut security co-ordination 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 UN Security Council, International Criminal Court and other international bodies.
The PA last cut security co-ordination 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 co-operation, signaling the financial importance of the relationship and the Palestinians' relief at the election of U.S. 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 UN and the International Criminal Court was problematic.
"We want to see them move back in the other direction," she said. "They need to engage with each other."
Jenin camp focus of regular arrests
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-storey building, apparently the operation's target, was a charred wreck. The military said it entered the building to detonate explosives.
Nine Palestinians have been killed during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank town of Jenin. The Israeli military says its troops went in to arrest Islamic Jihad militants planning major attacks.
Bloodiest West Bank incursion since 2002
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.
Violence condemned by international community
United Nations 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 neighbouring 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.
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 the settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for over a decade.
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