Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza after militants fire rockets in wake of West Bank raid

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  February 23, 2023

Region braced for escalation in violence as attacks from both sides follow deadliest Israeli army raid in decades in Nablus.

Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip have exchanged fire just hours after the deadliest Israeli army raid in decades killed 11 Palestinians and wounded more than 100 more in the occupied West Bank, leaving the region braced for an escalation in violence.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said early on Thursday morning that it carried out airstrikes on two military sites operated by Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the strip, after the launch of six rockets from the blockaded enclave towards southern Israel.

Five of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system, and no casualties were reported on either side. Neither Hamas nor the smaller militant groups operating in the strip have claimed responsibility for the attack, but several factions vowed that the Israeli army raid in Nablus would be met with a response.

The attack carried out by the IDF in the northern West Bank city on Wednesday was a rare daytime raid, which turned exceptionally bloody even by the standards of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The UN’s Middle East envoy, Tor Wennesland, was scheduled to meet the leadership of Hamas in Gaza on Thursday as part of international mediation efforts.

“I am deeply disturbed by the continuing cycle of violence and appalled by the loss of civilian lives,” he said before leaving Jerusalem. “I urge all sides to refrain from steps that could further inflame an already volatile situation.”

Israeli officials said troops had entered Nablus’s old city to arrest three men in their 20s wanted in connection with the killing of a soldier last year and who they said were planning new attacks. The IDF forces met fierce resistance from armed Palestinian fighters, and the Israelis eventually fired shoulder-launched missiles at the house in which the three militants were surrounded.

The Palestinian health ministry said 103 people, including many passersby, were injured during the four-hour gun battle that broke out in the middle of the busy shopping area, and that at least three of the dead were civilians. In the aftermath, shell-shocked residents inspected the bloodstains and widespread damage in the centuries-old souk. Public funerals organized by militant groups immediately got under way.

Medics said the city’s An-Najah Hospital struggled to deal with the casualties. Ahmad Aswad, the head nurse of the cardiology department, told the Associated Press that he saw many patients shot in the chest, head and thighs. “They shot to kill,” he said. According to several media reports, one overwhelmed nurse pronounced a man in his 60s as dead, only to realize that the patient was his own father.

The raid in Nablus was one of the deadliest IDF operations in the West Bank since the end of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which raged between 2000 and 2005. It came after another in the nearby city of Jenin last month, in which 10 people were killed, including two civilians.

A day after the Jenin raid, a Palestinian gunman believed to be unaffiliated to any established militant groups opened fire near a synagogue in occupied East Jerusalem, killing seven Israeli civilians.

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have soared of late, increasing fears of another intifada. Last year was the deadliest on record in Israel and the West Bank since 2005, and 62 Palestinians, 10 Israelis and one Ukrainian national have already been killed in 2023 so far, according to rights groups and the Israeli foreign ministry.

There has been a surge in violence since last April, when Israel launched a huge, still continuing operation – mainly targeting Nablus and Jenin – in response to a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis. Several new militias with only tenuous links to traditional Palestinian factions have emerged in the last two years, including the Lions’ Den in Nablus.

Israel’s police force said on Thursday it would deploy extra personnel across Jerusalem and the West Bank in anticipation of continued attacks.

The fighting comes as the newly re-elected Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, struggles to assert control over radical far-right elements of the new government who helped return him to office. The Religious Zionists faction has pushed for the full annexation of the West Bank and a relaxation of the rules of engagement for Israel’s police and soldiers. Just three days before the Nablus raid, the Israeli government reportedly agreed to a US-brokered plan to reduce IDF incursions in Palestinian cities.

Tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank often spiral during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on 23 March.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian