After deadly Israeli raid in Jenin, fears of escalation in West Bank

Palestinians in a house that was damaged by an Israeli explosive in the Jenin refugee camp, in the West Bank. (Kobi Wolf)
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JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — Several vans, including a milk delivery truck, rolled into the center of the Jenin refugee camp around 7 a.m. Thursday. Israeli forces burst out, rushing through the narrow, trash-strewn alleys. They lobbed an explosive toward a house, calling for the Palestinian militants inside to surrender, but the young men spilled into the streets and began firing back.

Magda Obad went to have a look from her upstairs window.

She was shot in the heart and the neck, said her daughter, Kifaya Omar Obad, who held her 61-year-old mother as she died. “I’m sure her killing was intentional,” Kifaya said. “She was not armed.”

Since a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks last spring, the Israeli military has been conducting near-daily raids across the West Bank, mostly carried out in the middle of the night to arrest militants it says were involved in, or planning, violence inside Israel. But on Thursday, at least nine people were killed and 19 wounded in an hours-long gun battle inside the Jenin refugee camp, which has become a center of armed Palestinian resistance.

Security experts now fear a return to the brutal, guerrilla warfare that claimed thousands of lives in the region two decades ago. On Friday, a Palestinian gunman killed at least seven people at a synagogue in East Jerusalem, according to Israeli officials, who identified the suspect as a 21-year-old Palestinian man with no criminal record.

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In Jenin, Jiries Khader, director of the nursing department at the city’s central hospital, said the intense nature of the Israeli incursion Thursday was “something we have not seen.”

He said the fatalities included a man whose head was run over by an Israeli military vehicle, two people burned alive in the initial explosion, and several others who were shot in the thigh, chest or head — areas that are prone to massive bleeding. Striking there carries an unmistakable message, he said: “We’re here to kill.”

The Israeli military banned Palestinian ambulances and cars from entering the camp for more than three hours, according to Khader and other hospital staff, forcing residents to carry the injured to the hospital on their backs. As the gunfight raged, Khader recounted, Israeli forces threw tear gas grenades into the courtyard and smoke began to enter the pediatric ward and the emergency room. Hospital staff scrambled to transport children to higher floors, he said.

Ahmad Abu Mualem, 21, said he was walking to work when he saw 50 Israeli military jeeps at the entrance to the Jenin camp. He was shot in the rectum and passed out, regaining consciousness in the hospital bed of the intensive care unit, where he was writhing in pain.

Thursday’s raid was the deadliest in the West Bank in two decades, according to Palestinian officials, and came on the heels of the deadliest year for Palestinians here since the United Nations began keeping systematic records in 2005.

Israeli authorities said the operation in Jenin targeted a “terror squad belonging to the Islamic Jihad terror organization” that was “heavily involved in executing and planning multiple major terror attacks, including shooting attacks on [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers and Israeli civilians.”

Israel’s military says three “terrorists” and three “armed suspects” were killed. It has acknowledged three more Palestinian deaths and said claims of additional casualties are being “looked into.”

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Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila told The Washington Post that the scene on Thursday was reminiscent of the brutal Israeli incursions during the second intifada, which was also marked by a wave of Palestinian bombings across Israel.

“This level of aggression and the very high quantity of equipment used to kill Palestinians has not happened since 2002,” Kaila said after visiting wounded residents at the hospital.

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“The young men are ready in the camp for any kind of incursion, and we will not surrender,” said Beha Abu Alheja, a member of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin, who took part in the firefight with the Israeli army. “Every time that someone is gunned down, family members, even if they are not connected to the resistance, will join,” he added. “If we lose one, we get 10 afterward.”

Since last spring, Jenin has emerged as a hub of militant activity, as it was 20 years ago during the last Palestinian uprising. Thousands of young men in the impoverished refugee camp are disqualified from obtaining Israeli work permits and, having lost faith in the Palestinian Authority and its aging leader, Mahmoud Abbas, have joined loosely organized militant networks.

“Our guns are open and our struggle continues,” said a statement from the Jenin Battalion, one of the recently formed gangs that operate out of the camp.

The Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, announced Thursday that it would cut security ties with Israel “in light of the repeated aggression against our people.” It is not clear how the halt would affect operations, but Israeli security experts warn that without security support, which includes intelligence gathering, the steady string of Palestinian stabbings and shootings in recent months could intensify.

Barbara Leaf, U.S. assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, said that civilian casualties in Jenin were “quite regrettable” but that suspending security cooperation was not “the right step,” noting “the potential for things to worsen in security terms, in terms of protests or any other kind of kinetic action.”

The Palestinian government is planning to appeal to the U.N. Security Council and other international bodies over the ongoing Israeli incursions, according to Kaila, the health minister.

But after losing her mother, Kifaya Omar Obad has no interest in diplomacy. “God willing,” she said, “all of Jenin will become a graveyard for the Jews.”

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.