Israeli Forces Launch Major Operation in West Bank City, Killing at Least 8

The Washington Post

JERUSALEM – About 1,000 Israeli soldiers backed by drone strikes stormed Jenin on Monday, targeting a militant “command center” in the most expansive Israeli military operation in the occupied West Bank in two decades.

The assault marked the start of an “extensive counterterrorism effort” centered on the densely populated Jenin refugee camp, according to Israeli officials. At least eight people were killed and 80 injured, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, with 17 in critical condition. The Israel Defense Forces said the operation would continue indefinitely.

“We’ll do it as long as it is needed; there is no timeline on this right now,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an IDF spokesman, told reporters. Another Palestinian was shot and killed by soldiers near the city of Ramallah while protesting the Jenin attack.

Gunfire, drones and explosions were reported throughout the day by Jenin residents and in videos posted on social media. Residents reported receiving text messages from Israeli numbers that warned them to stay inside for their protection. Separate messages directed at militants advised them to “surrender yourself for your safety and the safety of those around you.”

Israeli troops remained in the camp into the night, as aid groups warned of worsening humanitarian conditions. Ambulances had difficulty traveling on many streets, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, and at least some camp residents were without water or electricity. An IDF official said the military did not intentionally cut the utilities and would work to repair the lines.

The use of air power and a brigade-size force in the assault represents a significant military escalation in the northern West Bank, which has been targeted by frequent commando-style Israeli raids this year. The clashes have grown more intense in recent months; among them was a firefight in Jenin on June 19 that killed five Palestinians. A U.S.-built Apache helicopter gunship was used to help evacuate Israeli soldiers caught inside the camp, the first time Israel had turned to air power in the West Bank since the uprising known as the second intifada in the early 2000s.

The crowded and impoverished Jenin camp, a sprawling warren in the center of the city, is largely unpoliced by Palestinian Authority security forces and is known as a hub for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other armed factions.

Militants there have deployed roadside explosives and last week attempted to fire a crude rocket into Israel, though it failed quickly after launch. The IDF said a rocket launcher and hundreds of improvised explosive devices were confiscated by troops Monday.

Israeli officials said Monday’s offensive was meant to decisively confront the city’s longtime role as a base of militant operations.

Over the past two years, “most of the terror attacks against Israelis originated from Jenin,” the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, wrote on Twitter after the strike.

At least 50 attacks on Israeli citizens in recent months were launched from Jenin, according to the IDF, and 19 people participating in those assaults fled to the camp afterward.

“Our main focus is basically breaking that safe-haven mentality,” Hecht said. “We are not trying to hold ground; we are acting against very specific targets.”

The Israeli attacks Monday began shortly after 1 a.m. and destroyed what the IDF said was a militant command center that served as a hub of planning, weapons storage and communications. The building was surrounded by residential blocks and several facilities used by the United Nations agency responsible for aiding Palestinian refugees.

“A massacre is taking place now in Jenin camp,” Salim Awad, a 34-year-old restaurant worker, said in a phone interview Monday from a house where 19 Jenin residents were taking refuge. “The children are crying and screaming, terrified of what is happening.”

Awad said “a thousand Israeli soldiers” entered the camp in the early hours, with bulldozers rolling on Seka Street and partially demolishing several buildings. An airstrike destroyed the Freedom Theatre, he said, and he saw one boy with a severed leg.

“His brother was next to him, crying out for him,” he said.

Israeli soldiers worked their way through the streets, searching for suspected militants. They met stiff resistance at the start, according to Israeli officers, but many of the militants then went into hiding.

Gun battles still broke out periodically, according to witness accounts and video on social media. In the afternoon, soldiers fought their way into a mosque that had been harboring shooters, according to Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesman.

“We had previous intelligence that this mosque held weaponry and IEDs,” Hagari said. “Inside we found weapons and terror tunnels.”

The operation bore hallmarks of Israel’s regular missions against Islamist factions in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip – featuring airstrikes, no fixed end time and substantial military resources.

“We support Israel’s security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups,” a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “It is imperative to take all possible precautions to prevent the loss of civilian lives.”

Israeli officials publicly assured Palestinian leaders that they were not directing the attacks at the Palestinian Authority, which has security control of that section of the West Bank under the terms of the 1990s Oslo accords.

“This operation is not against the Palestinian Authority and is not against its security organizations, which have also found it difficult to operate in the Jenin refugee camp,” Hagari said in a radio interview. “We are focused solely on this bottleneck, to dismantle it.”

But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the attacks “a new war crime against our defenseless people,” according to a spokesman.

Rival militant groups throughout the occupied territories expressed defiance. “The resistance in all arenas will not allow the enemy to invade our people in Jenin or to single them out,” a coalition of factions in Gaza said in a statement.

The IDF said it was boosting air defense readiness in southern Israel in the event of rocket fire from Gaza.

Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militant group that Western nations regard as a terrorist organization, said in a statement that it would not be deterred by the strikes. “Jenin will not surrender,” said the organization, which has a following in the city.

Egypt and Jordan, Arab neighbors that have relations with Israel, condemned the operation and called on the international community to intervene. In a sign of regional tensions, Israeli planes conducted airstrikes near Homs, Syria, on Sunday, according to the Syrian army, and an antiaircraft missile that was reportedly launched from the area exploded over central Israel.

Many fear a return to the bloody warfare of the early 2000s that killed thousands across the region.

The decades-old Jenin camp has one of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty among refugee camps in the West Bank, according to the United Nations. Thousands of residents of the camp are on Israeli watch lists, making them ineligible for work permits.

Nearly half of the roughly 140 Palestinians killed by Israel in the West Bank between Jan. 1 and late June were affiliated with militant groups, the Associated Press reported. But in several instances, children have been killed as Israeli security forces have adopted increasingly aggressive tactics. In March, a 14-year-old boy was killed during a raid in central Jenin, according to a Washington Post investigation. In June, a 15-year-old girl was killed in another raid.

At least 23 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians this year, according to a Post tally of media reports and Israeli government figures. Last month, Hamas gunmen killed four Israelis at a gas station outside Eli, a small hilltop Israeli settlement. In response, groups of masked settlers rampaged through Palestinian villages over several days, burning cars and houses. One resident, a Palestinian American, was killed.

The surging violence has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – caught between hard-line coalition partners who have called for more aggressive military action in the West Bank and Israel’s Western allies who have urged restraint.

The party of Itamar Ben Gvir, an extremist settler activist who now serves as Israel’s security minister, boycotted parliamentary votes earlier this year to call for strikes against Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

“Proud of our heroes on all fronts and this morning especially of our soldiers operating in Jenin,” Ben-Gvir tweeted Monday.