Israeli military forces raided a refugee camp in the northern West Bank on Monday, igniting the fiercest day of fighting in years as Palestinian militants detonated roadside bombs and Israeli helicopter gunships struck Palestinian gunmen to rescue troops trapped in the hourslong firefight.
At least five Palestinians were killed, including a 15-year-old boy, and over 90 others were wounded, Palestinian health officials said. Seven Israeli soldiers were also wounded, the army said.
The Israeli military said forces stormed into the Jenin refugee camp in the early morning to arrest two wanted militants. They faced fierce resistance. Palestinian militants said they ambushed Israeli armored vehicles with explosive devices, disabling several vehicles with troops trapped inside.
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht described Palestinian militants’ use of at least one powerful roadside bomb as “very unusual and dramatic.” Five mangled vehicles were stuck in the firefight for hours, requiring the military to dispatch helicopters as part of an elaborate evacuation operation.
It was the first such use of a helicopter gunship in the occupied West Bank since the second Palestinian uprising around two decades ago, Israeli media reported. The Jenin refugee camp, long a militant stronghold, witnessed some of the biggest battles at the time.
At least one Apache helicopter fired missiles at Palestinian gunmen to try to clear the area while security forces worked to extract the trapped vehicles, the Israeli army said. The local branch of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad based in Jenin said its fighters opened fire at the combat helicopter. The group praised its fighters and warned Israel to “reconsider its calculations before its soldiers set foot on Jenin’s land.”
The Israeli army said that the Palestinian gunfire caused minor damage to the spinning tail rotor of a helicopter.
Witnesses described the nearly 10 hours of fighting as a bedlam of gunfire and explosions.
“They were shooting at anything and everything that moved,” hospital director Tawfik al-Shobaki said of Israeli forces.
As the Israeli military eventually withdrew its damaged vehicles from the camp in the late afternoon, Palestinians ventured out to assess the heavy damage and bury their dead.
The Palestinian Health Ministry identified those killed as Khaled Asasa, 21, Qassam Abu Sariya, 29, Qais Jabarin, 21, Ahmed Daraghmeh, 19, and 15-year-old Ahmed Saqr. Of the 91 Palestinians wounded, at least 12 were in critical condition, hospital officials said. Wissam Bakar, director of Jenin Government Hospital, said a 15-year-old girl was among the critically wounded.
Islamic Jihad claimed two of the dead as its fighters — Qais Jabarin and Qassam Abu Sariya.
A Palestinian cameraman, Hazem Nasser, wearing a clearly marked press vest, was among those seriously wounded in the fighting. His colleagues said he was shot when a building — where journalists had camped out to cover the clashes — came under Israeli fire.
“Of course there was a lot of shooting and explosions, but everyone knew we were journalists covering it,” fellow freelance journalist Alaa Badarneh said. “All of a sudden we were surrounded and the army started shooting toward us.”
An Associated Press journalist at the scene said that he saw the military shoot directly at Nasser. The Israeli military didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the shooting.
Last year, prominent Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed while covering an Israeli military raid into the Jenin refugee camp. The army has said Abu Akleh was likely killed by Israeli fire.
The Israeli military said that seven members of the paramilitary border police and the army suffered light and moderate wounds. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to wounded troops in the hospital. He praised the forces and said that Israel was “striking terror with strength and determination.”
The Palestinian leadership and other Arab states sharply condemned the Israeli raid.
Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official, accused Israel of waging “a fierce and open war” against the Palestinian people.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry denounced what it called Israel’s “continued escalation against the Palestinians,” saying the violence undermined efforts to reduce regional tensions.
The escalation was the latest in more than a year of near-daily violence that has wracked the West Bank.
Israel and the Palestinians have been gripped by months of violence, focused mainly in the West Bank, where 124 Palestinians have been killed this year. The city of Jenin has been a hotbed of Palestinian militancy.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians seek those territories for a future independent state.
Israel has been staging near-nightly raids in the West Bank in response to a spasm of Palestinian violence early last year. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have surged during that time. Israel says most of the dead were militants, but stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in confrontations have also been killed.
Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed at least 20 people this year.