Israel, Gaza fighters trade fire after deadly West Bank raid

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Fire and smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza Strip, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. Gaza militants fired rockets at Israel and Israel carried out airstrikes as tensions soared following an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank. The raid killed nine Palestinians, including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

JERUSALEM – Gaza militants fired rockets and Israel carried out airstrikes early Friday as tensions soared following an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank that killed nine Palestinians, including at least seven militants and a 61-year-old woman.

It was the deadliest single raid in the territory in over two decades. The flare-up in violence poses an early test for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government and casts a shadow on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected trip to the region next week.

Of the five rockets fired at Israel, three were intercepted, one fell in an open area and another fell short inside Gaza, the military said. It said the airstrikes targeted an underground rocket manufacturing site for Hamas as well as militant training areas.

The rockets set off air raid sirens in southern Israel but there were no reports of casualties on either side.

Both the Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes seemed limited so as to prevent escalation into a full-blown war. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes since the militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

Thursday's deadly raid in the Jenin refugee camp was likely to reverberate on Friday as Palestinians gather for weekly Muslim prayers that are often followed by protests. Hamas had earlier threatened revenge for the raid.

Raising the stakes, the Palestinian Authority said it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship and also due to U.S. and Israeli pressure to maintain it.

The Palestinian Authority already has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp. But the announcement could pave the way for Israel to step up operations it says are needed to prevent attacks.

On Thursday, Israeli forces went on heightened alert as Palestinians filled the streets across the West Bank, chanting in solidarity with Jenin. President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning, and in the refugee camp, residents dug a mass grave for the dead.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Abbas had decided to cut security coordination in “light of the repeated aggression against our people." He also said the Palestinians planned to file complaints with the U.N. Security Council, International Criminal Court and other international bodies.

Barbara Leaf, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, said the Biden administration was deeply concerned about the situation and that civilian casualties reported in Jenin were “quite regrettable.” But she also said the Palestinian announcement to suspend security ties and to pursue the matter at international organizations was a mistake.

Thursday's gun battle that left nine dead and 20 wounded erupted when Israel's military conducted a rare daytime operation in the Jenin camp that it said was meant to prevent an imminent attack on Israelis. The camp, where the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group has a major foothold, has been a focus of near-nightly Israeli arrest raids.

Hamas’ armed wing claimed four of the dead as members, while Islamic Jihad claimed three others.

The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the 61-year-old woman killed as Magda Obaid, and the Israeli military said it was looking into reports of her death.

The Israeli military circulated aerial video it said was taken during the battle, showing what appeared to be Palestinians on rooftops hurling stones and firebombs on Israeli forces below. At least one Palestinian can be seen opening fire from a rooftop.

Later in the day, Israeli forces fatally shot a 22-year-old and wounded two others, the Palestinian Health Ministry said, as Palestinians confronted Israeli troops north of Jerusalem to protest Thursday’s raid. Israel's paramilitary Border Police said they opened fire on Palestinians who launched fireworks at them from close range.

Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks.

Israel’s new national security minister, far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who seeks to grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians, posted a video of himself beaming triumphantly and congratulating security forces.

The raid left a trail of destruction in Jenin. A two-story building, apparently the operation's target, was a charred wreck. The military said it entered the building to detonate explosives.

Palestinian Health Minister May Al-Kaila said paramedics struggled to reach the wounded during the fighting, while Akram Rajoub, the governor of Jenin, said the military prevented emergency workers from evacuating them.

Both accused the military of firing tear gas at the pediatric ward of a hospital, causing children to choke. Video at the hospital showed women carrying children into a corridor.

The military said forces closed roads to aid the operation, which may have complicated rescue efforts, and that tear gas had likely wafted into the hospital from nearby clashes.

The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said Thursday marked the single bloodiest West Bank incursion since 2002, at the height of an intense wave of violence known as the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which left scars still visible in Jenin.

U.N. Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said he was “deeply alarmed and saddened” by the violence. Condemnations came from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Turkey, which recently reestablished full diplomatic ties with Israel. Neighboring Jordan, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries also condemned the Israeli raid.

The Islamic Jihad branch in Gaza 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.

Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to B’Tselem. So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed.

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

Last year, 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians claim those territories for their hoped-for state.

Israel has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that now house 500,000 people. The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for over a decade.

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Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; Areej Hazboun in Jerusalem; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Fares Akram in Hamilton, Ontario, contributed.