At least nine Palestinians were killed and scores wounded during Israel’s biggest military operation in the West Bank city of Jenin in more than two decades.
The operation began in the early hours of Monday with an air strike targeting a building that Israel said served as a central hub for armed Palestinian groups.
Drone strikes continued as thousands of troops entered the city and the adjoining refugee camp from all sides, closing in on gunmen as firefights took place in the narrow alleyways of the camp.
Jenin in recent years has become a militant stronghold. Gunmen from various factions control the streets, while the security forces from president Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority are conspicuous by their absence.
A spokesman for Mr Abbas termed the Israeli incursion “a new war crime against our defenceless people” that would not bring security and stability to the region. Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Palestinians would “remain steadfast on their land in the face of this brutal aggression until the occupation is defeated and freedom is achieved”.
Incursions into Jenin by Israeli forces take place every few weeks but Monday’s operation was on an entirely different level. Military bulldozers, moving ahead of the infantry units, churned up the roads to thwart the possible triggering of IEDs by the militants. Israeli snipers took up positions on rooftops and inside buildings, targeting gunmen who put up resistance.
Residents reported that Israeli troops were in the centre of the refugee camp within 10 minutes of the first air strike as electricity, water and internet connections were cut.
The military claimed to have located a tunnel under a mosque which led to a storeroom with more than 300 bombs. An improvised rocket launcher and other weapons were also discovered and destroyed, along with a weapons laboratory.
Dozens of fugitives were seized. “In recent months Jenin has become a haven for terrorism – we are putting an end to it,” said prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The Israeli military said it aimed to complete the operation as quickly as possible and said it would be limited to Jenin and not extended to other areas of the northern West Bank.
Despite the military successes claimed by Israel, most analysts agreed that it would be only a matter of time before the militants re-establish their presence within the Jenin refugee camp and the prospect of the Palestinian Authority regaining control of the area is almost non-existent.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said the Palestinians would know how to retaliate against Israel’s ”barbaric aggression”.
There was also condemnation from across the Arab and Muslim world.
Israel captured the West Bank, which the Palestinians see as the core of a future independent state, in the 1967 Middle East war. Following decades of conflict, peace talks that had been brokered by the United States have been frozen since 2014. Mr Netanyahu’s far-right government has advanced plans to increase settlements across the territory since it took office in December. Most of the international community considers the settlements to be illegal.
Israel had informed the United States of its plan to launch the operation, without providing details, and a White House spokesperson said Washington supported “Israel’s security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups”.
A 16-year-old Jenin resident stabbed and lightly wounded an Israeli man in Bnei Brak, adjacent to Tel Aviv, in what police described as a revenge attack for the Jenin operation.
Israel was also preparing for possible rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Over the past year Islamic Jihad cells have launched rockets at Israel from Gaza in response to events in the West Bank.
– Additional reporting: agencies.