Israeli troops and drones hit Jenin in major West Bank operation
JENIN, West Bank, July 3 (Reuters) - Israeli forces hit the city of Jenin with drone strikes on Monday during one of the biggest West Bank incursions in twenty years, killing at least eight people and involving hundreds of troops and gun battles that lasted into the afternoon.
With drones clearly audible overhead and the sounds of gunfire and explosives heard across the city hours after the strikes, the Jenin Brigades, a unit made up of militant groups based in the city’s crowded refugee camp, said it was engaging Israeli forces and had shot down one of the unmanned aircraft.
Operation of this scale have rarely been seen in the city since the end of the second Intifada uprising two decades ago.
At times during the morning, at least six drones could be seen circling over the city and the adjoining camp, a densely packed area housing around 14,000 refugees in less than half a square kilometre.
The camp has been at the heart of an escalation of violence across the West Bank that has triggered mounting alarm from Washington to the Arab world, without so far opening the way to a resumption of political negotiations that have been stalled for almost a decade.
For more than a year, army raids in cities such as Jenin have become routine, while there have been a series of deadly attacks by Palestinians against Israelis and rampages by Jewish settler mobs against Palestinian villages.
“What is going on in the refugee camp is real war,” said Palestinian ambulance driver Khaled Alahmad, describing Monday’s fighting. “There were strikes from the sky targeting the camp, every time we drive in, around five to seven ambulances and we come back full with injured people.”
The Palestinian health ministry confirmed at least eight people had been killed and more than 50 wounded in Jenin, while another man was killed in the city of Ramallah overnight after being shot in the head at a checkpoint.
The Israeli military said its forces struck a building that served as a command centre for fighters from the Jenin Brigades in what it described as an extensive counterterrorism effort aimed at destroying infrastructure and disrupting militants from using the refugee camp as a base.
Footage showed Israeli armoured bulldozers ploughing up roads in the camp, which was largely destroyed by Israeli troops during a previous incursion two decades ago, while gunfire continued and aircraft hit at least one other target in the afternoon.
A spokesman said the operation would last as long as needed and officials suggested forces could remain for days. “An operation doesn’t end in one day,” Energy Minister Israel Katz, a member of the security cabinet, told Army radio.
Until June 21, when it carried out a strike near Jenin, the Israeli military had not used drone strikes in the West Bank since 2006. But the growing scale of the violence and the pressure on ground forces meant such tactics may continue, a military spokesman said.
“We’re really stretched,” he told journalists. “It’s because of the scale. And again, from our perception, this will minimize friction,” he said, saying the strikes were based on “precise intelligence”.
Monday’s operation, involving a force described as “brigade-size” – suggesting around 1,000-2,000 troops – was intended to help “break the safe haven mindset of the camp, which has become a hornets nest,” the spokesman said.
Its apparent scale underlined the importance of the Jenin camp in violence that has further exposed the impotence of the Palestinian Authority to impose its writ over towns in the West Bank, where it holds nominal governance powers.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the operation “a new war crime against our defenceless people.”
Hundreds of fighters from militant groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah are based in the camp, which was set up 70 years ago to house refugees in the aftermath of the 1948 Palestine war. The fighters are armed with an array of weapons and a growing arsenal of explosive devices.
Israeli forces said they seized an improvised rocket launcher and hit a weapons production and explosives storage facility.
The Israeli military, which regularly accuses militant groups of basing fighters in civilian areas, said the targeted building functioned as an “advanced observation and reconnaissance centre” and a weapons and explosives site as well as a coordination and communications hub.
It was unclear whether the incursion would trigger a wider response from Palestinian factions, drawing in militant groups in the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas.
“The resistance will confront the enemy and defend the Palestinian people and all options are open to strike the enemy and respond to its aggression on Jenin,” said a statement from the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group in Gaza.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said his forces were “closely monitoring the conduct of our enemies.
“The defence establishment is ready for all scenarios.”
Following the last major raid in Jenin in June, Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank in an attack that led to a rampage by mobs of settlers in Palestinian villages and towns.
As daylight broke on Monday, thick black smoke from burning tyres set alight by residents swirled through the Jenin streets while calls to support the fighters rang out from loudspeakers in mosques.
Israel captured the West Bank, which the Palestinians see as the core of a future independent state, in the 1967 Middle East war. Following decades of conflict, peace talks that had been brokered by the United States have been frozen since 2014.
By Ali Sawafta
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, James Mackenzie, Dan Williams, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Frank Jack Daniel)