Israel used drones to strike targets in a militant stronghold in the occupied West Bank early Monday and deployed hundreds of troops in the area, in an incursion that resembled the wide-scale military operations carried out during the second Palestinian uprising two decades ago. Palestinian health officials said at least seven Palestinians were killed.
Troops remained inside the Jenin refugee camp at midday Monday, pushing ahead with the largest operation in the area during more than a year of fighting. It came at a time of growing domestic pressure for a tough response to a series of attacks on Israeli settlers, including a shooting attack last month that killed four Israelis.
Black smoke rose from the crowded streets of the camp, the sound of gunfire rang out and the buzzing of drones could be heard overhead as the military pressed on. Residents said electricity was cut off in some parts and military bulldozers plowed through narrow streets, damaging buildings as they cleared the way for Israeli forces in another reminder of the last uprising. The Palestinians and neighboring Jordan condemned the violence.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant huddled with top military commanders and said the operation was “proceeding as planned.” He said Israel had dealt “a tough blow” to local militant groups but gave no indication when the incursion would end.
Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an army spokesman, said the operation began just after 1 a.m. with an airstrike on a building used by militants to plan attacks. He said the goal of the operation was to destroy and confiscate weapons.
“We’re not planning to hold ground,” he said. “We’re acting against specific targets.”
He said that a brigade-size force _ roughly 2,000 soldiers _ was taking part in the operation, and that military drones had carried out a series of strikes to clear the way for the ground forces. Although Israel has carried out isolated airstrikes in the West Bank in recent weeks, Hecht said Monday’s series of strikes was an escalation unseen since 2006 _ the end of the Palestinian uprising.
While Israel described the attack as a pinpoint operation, smoke billowed from within the crowded camp, with mosque minarets nearby. Ambulances raced toward a hospital where the wounded were brought in on stretchers.
Lynn Hastings, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the Palestinian areas, said on Twitter that she was “alarmed by scale of Israeli forces operation,” noting the airstrikes in a densely populated refugee camp. She said the U.N. was mobilizing humanitarian aid.
According to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, the military blocked roads within the camp, took over houses and buildings and set up snipers on rooftops. The tactics signaled the operation could drag on for some time.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said at least seven Palestinians were killed and over two dozen injured Monday, three of them critically.
In a separate incident, a 21-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli fire near the West Bank city of Ramallah, the ministry said.
“Our Palestinian people will not kneel, will not surrender, will not raise the white flag, and will remain steadfast on their land in the face of this brutal aggression,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian president, said in a statement.
Jordan called for Israel to halt its raids into the West Bank.
The Jenin camp and an adjacent town of the same name have been a flashpoint as Israeli-Palestinian violence escalated since spring 2022.
Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, praised the efforts of the military during an address to foreign journalists and accused archenemy Iran of being behind the violence by funding Palestinian militant groups.
“Due to the funds they receive from Iran, the Jenin camp has become a center for terrorist activity,” he said, adding that the operation would be conducted in a “targeted manner” to avoid civilian casualties.
Palestinians reject such claims, saying the violence is a natural response to 56 years of occupation since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.
Jenin has long been a bastion for armed struggle against Israel and was a major friction point in the last Palestinian uprising.
In 2002, days after a Palestinian suicide bombing during a large Passover gathering killed 30 people, Israeli troops launched a massive operation in the Jenin camp. For eight days and nights they fought militants street by street, using armored bulldozers to destroy rows of homes, many of which had been booby-trapped.
Retired Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi, who served as a battalion commander in the northern West Bank in 2002, described Monday’s operation as a “raid” in which the army moves in and then withdraws.
But Avivi, who is president and founder of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, a hawkish group of former military commanders, said the size of the force indicated the operation could last “for a longer period of time, not just a few hours, but maybe a few days.”
Monday’s raid came two weeks after another violent confrontation in Jenin and after the military said a pair of rockets were fired from the area last week. The rockets exploded shortly after launch, causing no damage in Israel, but marked an escalation that has raised concerns in Israel.
“There has been a dynamic here around Jenin for the last year,” Hecht said, defending Monday’s tactics. “It’s been intensifying all the time.”
But there also may have been political considerations at play. Leading members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is dominated by West Bank settlers and their supporters, have been calling for a broader military response to the ongoing violence in the area.
“Proud of our heroes on all fronts and this morning especially of our soldiers operating in Jenin,” tweeted National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultranationalist who recently called for Israel to kill “thousands” of militants if necessary. “Praying for their success.”
More than 130 Palestinians have been killed this year in the West Bank, part of more than a yearlong spike in violence that has seen some of the worst bloodshed in the area in nearly two decades.
The outburst of violence escalated last year after a spate of Palestinian attacks prompted Israel to step up its raids in the West Bank.
Israel says the raids are meant to beat back militants. The Palestinians say such violence is inevitable in the absence of any political process with Israel and increased West Bank settlement construction and violence by extremist settlers.
Israel says most of those killed have been militants, but stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and people uninvolved in confrontations have also been killed.
Palestinian attacks against Israelis since the start of this year have killed 24 people.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.
Associated Press writer Omar Akour contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.