Five Palestinian gunmen were killed in shootouts with Israeli security forces during a sweeping West Bank arrest operation cracking down on the Islamic militant group Hamas on Sunday.
It was the deadliest violence between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants within the occupied West Bank in recent weeks and came amid heightened tensions following this year’s 11-day war between Israel and Hamas within the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said two Palestinians were shot dead near the northern West Bank city of Jenin and three others were killed in Biddu, north of Jerusalem. The Israeli military said a politician and soldier suffered serious injuries during the arrest in Burqin, near Jenin, and was airlifted to a hospital for medical treatment.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said during a statement that Israeli security forces within the West Bank moved against Hamas operatives “that were close to executing terror attacks within the very immediate future.”
He said the soldiers within the field “acted needlessly to say of them” and said his government gave them full support.
Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, an Israeli army spokesperson, said Israeli forces were involved during a joint operation with the Shin Bet internal security agency and therefore the Border Police came under attack while completing arrests within the West Bank.
He said the aim was “to stop a Hamas terrorist group cell that’s operating in Judea and Samaria with an intent to hold out terror attacks,” pertaining to the West Bank by its biblical names.
He said a minimum of four Hamas operatives were killed and a number of others were arrested within the overnight operation.
The official Palestinian press agency WAFA said 22-year-old Osama Soboh was killed during clashes surrounding an arrest within the northern West Bank village of Burqin, near Jenin.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, praised those killed as “heroic martyrs” and claimed the three killed in Biddu as members of its armed wing. It blamed their deaths on the “continuing coordination” between the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority and therefore the Israeli government and called on its supporters to “devise tactics and means harm the enemy and drain it with all possible sorts of resistance.”
Hamas spokesman Abdulatif al-Qanou blamed the rival Palestinian Authority, which has limited autonomy over areas of the West Bank, saying recent meetings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli officials “encouraged the occupation again to pursue the resistance.”
The Palestinian Authority, whose security forces coordinate with Israel to suppress Hamas and other militant groups, condemned the killings and said the Israeli government was “fully and directly liable for this bloody morning and therefore the crimes committed by the occupation forces.”
Last month, Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian gunmen during a late-night raid in Jenin, killing four Palestinians. Recent months have seen an increase in violence within the West Bank, with quite twenty-four Palestinians killed in sporadic clashes with Israeli troops and through protests.
Sunday’s clashes came every week after Israel recaptured the last of six Palestinian fugitives who tunneled out of a maximum-security Israeli prison and were on the lam for over every week. Several of the escapees were from Jenin, and two were caught there after an in-depth search.
Israel captured the West Bank within the 1967 Mideast war and within the decades since has established dozens of settlements where nearly 500,000 settlers reside. The Palestinians seek the West Bank as a part of their future state and consider the settlements as a serious obstacle to resolving the conflict.