An hourslong gunfight broke out between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen during an Israeli operation to arrest Palestinian fighters. The violence left the region braced for further unrest.
At least 10 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 others wounded on Wednesday, Palestinian officials said, in an hourslong gun battle between Israeli security forces and armed Palestinian groups in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Israeli military said the firefight occurred during an operation to arrest Palestinian gunmen.
Three armed Palestinian groups said that six of the casualties were fighters in their movements. Others appeared to be noncombatants: Time-stamped CCTV footage from late Wednesday morning that circulated on social media seemed to show the shooting of at least two unarmed Palestinians as they ran away from gunfire.
A spokesman for the Israeli Army, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, said that the bloodshed on Wednesday began after troops entered Nablus to arrest members of the Lions’ Den, a local armed group that emerged last year and that has been partly responsible for a spike in Palestinian violence. Colonel Hecht said the group was planning imminent assaults and was also responsible for an attack that killed an Israeli soldier in October while he was patrolling a nearby part of the northern West Bank.
The military acknowledged that Israeli forces had killed three gunmen and fired at other armed Palestinians during riots that followed the rare daytime raid. It also said that it was looking into the video that appeared to show unarmed people being killed.
The raid on Wednesday was the second in less than a month to end in the deaths of at least 10 Palestinians — two of the most lethal such incidents in years. A raid in Jenin late last month killed 10 Palestinians.
Analysts said that the rare Israeli decision to raid Nablus and Jenin after sunrise — instead of during the night, when the army usually conducts its operations — heightened the risk of escalation. During the day, there is a higher chance that nearby residents will get caught in the crossfire or join the clashes themselves.
The ongoing violence poses a challenge for Israel’s new right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The day’s events left the region bracing for further unrest in the coming days, with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, warning that the killings would not pass “without a response.”
Militant groups in Gaza often fire rockets into Israeli airspace after violence in the West Bank, actions that typically then prompt Israel to strike Gaza, raising the risk of a full-scale air war in the blockaded territory. Israeli raids are also often followed by reprisals from lone Palestinian gunmen; in January, a Palestinian shot dead seven Israelis in Jerusalem, the day after the Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin.
The deaths on Wednesday brought the number of Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank since the start of the year to nearly 60, most of them during shootouts that the Israeli military says began during operations to arrest Palestinian gunmen.
- Balancing Act: In the aftermath of recent Palestinian attacks on Israelis, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, faced domestic calls for a harsh crackdown as well as international pressure to show moderation.
- Home Demolitions: In response to the violence surge, the Israeli government is aggressively pursuing the policy of leveling the family homes of Palestinians accused of attacks.
- Fueling Tensions: The roots of the violence predate Israel’s new far-right government, but analysts fear the administration’s ministers and goals will further inflame the situation.
- Raid in the West Bank: At least 10 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 others wounded on Feb. 22 in an hourslong gun battle between Israeli security forces and armed Palestinian groups in the occupied West Bank.
Palestinian officials say this is the deadliest start to a year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2000, prompting comparisons with a Palestinian insurgency known as the second intifada that left roughly 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead in the early years of the century.
At least 11 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians since the start of the year, including the seven in the mass shooting on Jan. 27 by the Palestinian in East Jerusalem — the deadliest attack in the city since 2008.
Colonel Hecht said that a four-hour gun battle broke out when three suspects started firing on Israeli forces who had come to apprehend them from a safe house in central Nablus.
He said that one of the three was killed after emerging from the building, while the two others were killed inside. During the exchange, Israeli soldiers fired anti-tank missiles at the building, Colonel Hecht said.
In a recording circulated by Palestinian media outlets on Wednesday morning, a man identified as one of the cornered Palestinian gunmen vowed to go down fighting. “I will not surrender myself,” the man in the recording said. “Please don’t abandon the gun after us,” he added, “and complete the path.”
Unrest also broke out across the center of Nablus on Wednesday, video and photographs showed, with Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli military trucks and Israeli forces firing tear gas. The Israeli military and the police both separately said that their forces had shot at other armed people who approached them during the operation.
Video suggested that at least two people were shot with their backs to gunfire. Four of the casualties had no known affiliation with any armed faction. One was 72 and another 61, according to a statement by the Palestinian health ministry.
Three Palestinian armed groups issued conflicting statements that competed to assert connections with some of the slain fighters. The Lions’ Den claimed responsibility for six of the 10, while the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, another armed group affiliated with Fatah, the dominant Palestinian movement in the West Bank, said that three of those six were members of its group. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a third armed group, claimed responsibility for two of the six.
Jockeying for influence, Palestinian groups sometimes issue competing claims over people killed during clashes with Israel, while Lions’ Den is known to contain fighters who originated from both Fatah and Islamic Jihad.
Palestinians attribute the unusually high death tolls in the recent Israeli raids to an increased readiness among Israeli soldiers to shoot to kill. But Israeli officials say that the army’s rules of engagement have not changed, instead attributing the toll to a proliferation of guns within Palestinian society and an increased readiness among Palestinian gunmen to fire on Israeli soldiers instead of surrendering without a fight.
The involvement of Lions’ Den, a group founded only last year, reflects a growing willingness among some young Palestinians to engage in armed resistance to Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank. Roughly 2.7 million Palestinians live under varying degrees of Israeli control in the territory, where Israel has created a two-tier legal system in which Palestinians are tried in Israeli military courts and Israelis in civilian ones.
Frustrated at the failures of the aging Palestinian leadership, dozens of young Palestinian men have joined new armed movements that operate independently of traditional Palestinian chains of command, like the Lion’s Den in Nablus or the Jenin Brigade in Jenin.
Many members of these groups have distanced themselves from the Palestinian Authority, the semiautonomous institution that administers parts of the West Bank and cooperates with the Israeli security forces to curb violence in the territory.
Analysts say that groups like the Lions’ Den resent the Palestinian Authority almost as much as they resist Israel. In parallel, the authority is reluctant to clamp down on the dissidents to avoid further denting its own popularity — a decision that Israeli officials say leaves Israel with little option other than to combat the group itself.
Hiba Yazbek and Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting