Concerns over escalating violence after Israeli forces kill nine Palestinians during West Bank raid

The Guardian  /  January 27, 2023

 Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza on Friday morning, to which Israel responded with missile strikes.

Washington has raised concern over the escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence after Israeli forces on Thursday killed nine Palestinians during a West Bank raid in the deadliest single day in the territory in decades.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said he feared the security situation could worsen after two rockets were fired from Gaza early on Friday and Israel responded with airstrikes on the territory.

The top US diplomat is set to travel to the Middle East on Sunday to discuss the situation, with a visit planned to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank.

The trip was announced just hours after Israeli commandos killed seven gunmen and two civilians in the occupied West Bank.

A 61-year-old woman and a male civilian were among the dead, the Palestinian health ministry said, and about 20 more people were seriously injured. Two of the casualties were claimed by the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another four by Hamas and one by the armed wing of the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank and works alongside Israel to contain militant activity, announced on Thursday night it was suspending security cooperation with the Israeli government – a step it has taken on a temporary basis in the past.

Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers arrived at daybreak on Thursday at several entrances of the Jenin refugee camp, a militant stronghold in the north of the Palestinian territory, said Sakir Khader, a Palestinian-Dutch film-maker at the scene. Armed Palestinians shot at an Israeli armoured vehicle disguised as a commercial van, at which point the IDF returned fire and a fierce four-hour gun battle ensued, causing widespread damage, he said.

“I was stuck in the middle of the firefight for hours,” Khader said. “It was crazy. There were snipers and drones and they used a bulldozer to block off a street. It destroyed lots of cars and a public meeting spot.

“At the hospital there are mothers looking for their sons … Everything is still very tense. I have been coming to Palestine all my life and I have never seen something like this.”

“The situation in Jenin camp is very critical,” the Palestinian health minister, Mai al-Kaila, said in a statement. Israeli forces had prevented ambulances from reaching the injured, she added.

The IDF said it conducted the unusual daytime operation, which ventured deep into the camp, because of intelligence suggesting a cell linked to Palestinian Islamic Jihad was planning to carry out imminent attacks against Israelis.

The raid’s death toll is the highest in a single operation ever recorded by the United Nations since the international body’s records began in 2005.

Shortly after midnight on Friday, Palestinian militants fired two rockets from the Gaza Strip towards southern Israel that were intercepted by missile defences. Israel then carried out strikes in Gaza.

There was no immediate claim for the rocket fire and no immediate reports of casualties from the subsequent Israeli airstrikes.

The top US state department official on the Middle East, Barbara Leaf, said the 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 was a mistake.

“Obviously, we don’t think this is the right step to take at this moment,” she told reporters, saying the Palestinian vow to bring the matter to the UN and the international criminal court was problematic.

UN and Arab mediators said on Thursday afternoon that negotiations were being held with Israel and Palestinian factions across the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an effort to calm the situation. The United Arab Emirates, China and France have also asked the UN security council to meet behind closed doors on Friday.

Israel did not give any immediate indication it was engaged in talks. The Defence minister, Yoav Gallant, put forces in the occupied West Bank and on the Gaza frontier on heightened alert.

The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel was not looking to escalate the situation, though he ordered security forces “to prepare for all scenarios in the various sectors”.

Tensions in the decades-long conflict have soared as a result of the escalating violence and recent polling suggests that support for the dormant peace process has reached an all-time low on both sides.

The recent election of the most rightwing government in Israeli history is expected to inflame an already volatile situation. Members of the new Israeli coalition have pledged to accelerate the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank – a practice that negates the possibility of a two-state solution – and loosen the rules of engagement for soldiers and police.

The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report