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News / Nation & World

3 Palestinian militants killed in Israeli West Bank raid; U.S. slams latest settlement expansion

By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press
Published: May 22, 2023, 7:59am

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Three Palestinian militants were killed in an Israeli army raid in a West Bank refugee camp early Monday, Palestinian officials said, while the Biden administration sharply condemned Israel’s latest act of settlement expansion.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said the three men were killed during a raid in Balata, a refugee camp near the city of Nablus. Six people were wounded, including one who was in critical condition, the ministry said. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group with connections to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, identified the men killed as its members.

The army confirmed the raid, saying troops came under fire and killed three Palestinians. Three others were arrested there, the army said. Israel has stepped up raids over the past year in response to a spate of Palestinian attacks and said Monday’s operations netted weapons and an explosives manufacturing operation in a home, which it detonated.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration issued a sharply worded statement on Sunday criticizing Israel for moving to reestablish a settlement at the formerly evacuated outpost of Homesh in northern West Bank.

In March, the Israeli government repealed a 2005 act that dismantled four West Bank settlements. Over the weekend, the top Israeli army general in the West Bank signed an order attaching Homesh to a local settler regional council — a move paving the way for reconstruction of the outpost.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the U.S. was “deeply troubled” by the announcement, and noted that Israel itself had determined the settlement was built illegally on private Palestinian land.

Miller also expressed Washington’s concerns about ultranationalist National Security Minister Itmar Ben-Gvir’s visit Sunday to the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. The contested site is also home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

“This holy space should not be used for political purposes, and we call on all parties to respect its sanctity,” Miller said in the statement.

Under longstanding arrangements, Jews are permitted to visit the site, but not to pray there. But in recent years, a growing number of Jewish visitors have begun to quietly pray, raising fears among Palestinians that Israel is plotting to divide or take over the site. Ben-Gvir has long called for increased Jewish access.

Ben-Gvir visited the hilltop compound earlier on Sunday, declaring that “we are in charge,” while the Israeli Cabinet held a rare meeting in Jerusalem’s Old City to celebrate its control of the area. Ben-Gvir’s visit drew condemnations from the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbor, Jordan.

A former West Bank settler leader and far-right activist who years ago was convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terror group, Ben-Gvir now serves as Israel’s national security minister, overseeing the country’s police force.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said the three killed in Balata on Monday were Fathi Jihad Rizk, 30, Abdullah Yousef Abu Hamdan, 24, and Muhammad Bilal Zaytoun, 32.

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In a separate overnight raid in the northern town of Jenin, the army said two Palestinians were shot and three were arrested when the Israeli forces came under attack.

More than 250 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the spring of 2022. About 50 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants, but stone throwing youths protesting the incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for a future independent state, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move unrecognized by most of the international community and considers the city its undivided, permanent capital.

Tensions at the disputed compound have fueled past rounds of violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, includes ultra-Orthodox and far-right nationalist parties and has made West Bank settlement construction a top priority.

Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements, home to 700,000 people in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, to be illegal and obstacles to peace.

Earlier this month, fighting also erupted between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip.

In that escalation, Israeli fire killed 18 militants and 10 civilians, while three civilians were hit by misfired rockets, according to a Palestinian rights group. Two other people were killed and Israel claims they were militants, but that could not be independently verified.