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News / Nation & World

10 Palestinians killed, scores hurt in Israel West Bank raid

Published: February 22, 2023, 11:13am
7 Photos
A Palestinian gestures to Israeli military vehicles during clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Israeli troops moved into the city, setting off fighting that killed several Palestinians, including a 72-year-old man, Palestinian health officials said. The Israeli military gave few details about its operation in the northern city, which is known as a militant stronghold, and the army frequently operates there.
A Palestinian gestures to Israeli military vehicles during clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Israeli troops moved into the city, setting off fighting that killed several Palestinians, including a 72-year-old man, Palestinian health officials said. The Israeli military gave few details about its operation in the northern city, which is known as a militant stronghold, and the army frequently operates there. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed) Photo Gallery

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli forces on Wednesday stormed into a major Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank for a rare daylight arrest raid, triggering a fierce gunbattle that killed at least 10 Palestinians and wounded scores of others.

It was one of the bloodiest battles in nearly a year of fighting in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and raised the likelihood of further bloodshed. Israeli police said they were on heightened alert, while the Hamas militant group in Gaza said its patience was “running out.” Islamic Jihad, another militant group, vowed to retaliate.

Among the dead were two Palestinian men, ages 72 and 61, and a 16-year-old boy, according to health officials.

The four-hour operation left a broad swath of damage in a centuries-old marketplace in Nablus. In one emotional scene, an overwhelmed medic pronounced a man dead, only to notice the lifeless patient was his father. An amateur video showed two men, apparently unarmed, being shot as they ran in the street.

Israel has been carrying out stepped-up arrest raids of wanted militants in the West Bank since a series of deadly Palestinian attacks in Israel last spring.

Israeli officials liken these operations to “mowing the lawn,” saying they are necessary to prevent a difficult situation from turning worse. But the raids have shown few signs of slowing the violence, and in cases like Wednesday’s operation, they raise the likelihood of reprisals.

The Israeli military said it entered Nablus, the West Bank’s commercial center, to arrest three militants suspected in previous shooting attacks. The main suspect was wanted in the killing of an Israeli soldier last fall.

The military usually conducts raids at night in what it says is a tactic meant to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. But military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said forces moved quickly after intelligence services tracked down the men in a hideout.

Hecht said that Israeli forces surrounded the building and asked the men to surrender, but instead they opened fire. One militant who tried to flee the building was shot and killed. He said the military then fired missiles at the house, flattening the building and killing the other two men.

At the same time, he said troops that had set up an outside perimeter came under heavy fire, setting off an intense gunfight. The military said others hurled rocks and explosives at the troops, and officials released a video taken from inside an armored vehicle as crowds of Palestinian youths pelted it with stones. There were no Israeli casualties.

The influx of wounded overwhelmed the city’s Najah Hospital, said Ahmad Aswad, the head nurse of the cardiology department.

The 36-year-old medic told The Associated Press that he saw many patients shot in the chest, head and thighs. “They shot to kill,” he said.

In a moment he said will haunt him, he and a colleague carefully extracted a bullet from a 61-year-old man’s heart. After the chaos subsided and they pronounced their patient dead, they calmed down enough to look at the man’s face. It was his colleague’s father, 61-year-old Abdelaziz Ashqar.

His colleague, Elias Ashqar, was overcome and went silent. “It didn’t feel like we were in reality,” Aswad said.

In the Old City of Nablus, people stared at the rubble that had been a large home in the centuries-old marketplace. From one end to the other, shops were riddled with bullets. Parked cars were crushed. Blood stained the cement ruins. Furniture from the destroyed home was scattered among mounds of debris.

Time-stamped security footage widely shared online appeared to show two unarmed young men running down a street. Gunshots are heard, and both fall to the ground, with one’s hat flying off his head.

Hecht called the video “problematic,” and said the military was looking into it.

The Palestinian Health Ministry pronounced 10 people dead, including Ashqar and a 72-year-old man. Various Palestinian militant groups claimed six of the dead — including the three targeted in the raid — as members. There was no immediate word on whether the others belonged to armed groups.

As the bodies were paraded through the crowd on stretchers, thousands of people packed the streets, chanting in support of the militants. Masked men fired into the air.

Israel’s police force said it was beefing up security in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in anticipation of violence.

Last month, Israeli troops killed 10 people in a similar raid in the northern West Bank. In response, Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza. The following day, a lone Palestinian gunman opened fire near a synagogue in an east Jerusalem settlement, killing seven people.

Days later, five Palestinian militants were killed in an Israeli arrest raid elsewhere in the West Bank. That was followed by a Palestinian car ramming that killed three Israelis, including two young brothers, in Jerusalem.

The fighting comes at a sensitive time, less than two months after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hard-line government took office.

The government is dominated by ultranationalists who have pushed for tougher action against Palestinian militants and vowed to entrench Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank. Israeli media have quoted top security officials as expressing concern that this could lead to even more violence as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches.

The Cabinet includes a number of West Bank settler leaders, one of whom has been promised authority over settlement construction.

In a move that could further raise tensions, Yesha, the settlement council, announced that Israeli planning officials had granted approval to nearly 2,000 new homes in settlements across the West Bank. There was no immediate confirmation from the government, but an announcement was expected Thursday after a planning committee wrapped up a two-day meeting.

The Palestinians and most of the international community say settlements built on occupied lands are illegal and obstacles to peace. Over 700,000 settlers now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in 1967 and sought by the Palestinians for a future state.

The Israeli decision comes in the wake of a U.N. presidential statement that strongly criticized settlements.

The U.S. blocked what would have been a stronger, legally binding council resolution.

American diplomats claimed to have extracted an Israeli pledge to halt unilateral action to block the resolution. The approval of new settlements by Israel would appear to undermine that claim.

At the U.N., Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the Israeli operation “deeply concerning” and said the situation “is at its most combustible in years.” He called for stepped-up efforts to restore calm.

The Palestinian ambassador to the U.N., Riyad Mansour, called on the international community “to put an end to these massacres against our people.”

In the Gaza Strip, Abu Obeda, a spokesman for the ruling Hamas militant group, issued a veiled threat.

“The resistance in Gaza is observing the enemy’s escalating crimes against our people in the occupied West Bank, and its patience is running out,” he said.

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Late Wednesday, Palestinian activists burned tires along Gaza’s frontier with Israel in protest.

Hamas has battled Israel in four wars since seizing control of Gaza in 2007.

Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad Al-Nakhala called the Israeli raid a “huge crime.”

“It is our duty as resistance forces to respond to this crime without hesitation,” he said.

Nearly 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year, according to an AP tally, a pace that could exceed last year’s death toll.

Last year, nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, making it the deadliest year in those areas since 2004, according to figures by the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians seek for their hoped-for independent state.