BY MAJDI MOHAMMED AND TIA GOLDENBERG

 

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) — Israeli forces killed at least nine Palestinians, including a 60-year-old woman, and wounded several others during a raid in a flashpoint area of the occupied West Bank on Thursday, Palestinian health officials said, in the deadliest day in years in the territory.

 

The violence occurred during what Palestinian health officials described as a fierce, daytime operation in the Jenin refugee camp, a militant stronghold of the West Bank that has been a focus of nearly a year of Israeli arrest raids. The conflict spiked this month, with 29 Palestinians killed since the start of the year. It was not immediately clear how many of those killed Thursday were affiliated with armed groups.

 

The fighting comes weeks into Israel’s new government, its most right-wing ever, which has pledged to take a hard line against the Palestinians and ramp up settlement construction on lands the Palestinian seek for their hoped-for state. It also comes days before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to arrive in the region and push for steps that might improve daily life for the Palestinians.

 

The Israeli military said it was conducting the rare daytime operation because of intelligence it had received that a militant grouping linked to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has a major foothold in the camp, was set to carry out imminent attacks against Israelis. A gun battle erupted, during which the military said it targeted the militants. At least one of the dead was identified by Palestinians as a militant.

 

 

Palestinian Health Minister May Al-Kaila said paramedics were struggling to reach the wounded amid the fighting. She also accused the military of firing tear gas at the pediatric ward of a hospital, causing children to choke. Video from the hospital showed women carrying children out of hospital rooms and into the corridor. The military said tear gas had likely wafted into the hospital from the clashes nearby.

 

Jenin hospital identified the woman killed as Magda Obaid and the Israeli military said it was looking into reports of her death. The Palestinian Health Ministry earlier identified another one of the dead as Saeb Azriqi, 24, who was brought to a hospital in critical condition after being shot, and died from his wounds. And the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade — an armed militia affiliated with Fatah, the secular political party that controls the Palestinian Authority, claimed one of the dead, Izz al-Din Salahat, as a fighter. The ministry said at least 20 people were wounded.

 

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, condemned the violence, calling on the international community to speak out against it.

 

Akram Rajoub, the governor of Jenin, told The Associated Press the military prevented medical teams from evacuating the wounded and fired tear gas that seeped into the government hospital, affecting infants and interrupting surgeries. The military said forces closed roads to facilitate their operation, which may have complicated the efforts of rescue teams to reach the wounded.

 

“We ask that the international community help the Palestinians against this extremist right-wing government and protect our citizens,” he said.

 

The deaths drew condemnation from neighboring Jordan as well as from the militant Islamic Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip.

 

The Islamic Jihad branch in the coastal enclave has repeatedly fought against Israel, most recently in a fierce three-day clash last summer that killed dozens of Palestinians and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Tensions surrounding violence in the West Bank have in the past spilled over to Gaza.

 

“The response of the resistance to what happened today in Jenin camp will not be delayed,” warned top Hamas official Saleh Arouri.

 

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have soared since Israel launched the raids last spring, following a spate of Palestinian attacks that killed 19 people, while another round of attacks later in the year brought the death toll to 30.

 

Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed last year, making 2022 the deadliest since 2004, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

 

Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations have also been killed. So far this year, and not including Thursday, one-third of the Palestinians killed by Israeli troops or civilians had ties to armed groups.

 

Israel says the raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation.

 

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

 

Israel’s new far-right government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and propped up by ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has pledged to put West Bank settlement expansion at the top of its priority list and has already announced a series of punitive steps against the Palestinians for pushing the U.N.’s highest judicial body to give its opinion on the Israeli occupation.

 

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Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Areej Hazboun and Isabel DeBre contributed to this report from Jerusalem.