Israeli troops on Wednesday entered a major Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank in a rare, daytime arrest operation, triggering fighting that killed at least 10 Palestinians and wounded scores of others.
The raid, which reduced a building to rubble and left a series of shops riddled with bullets, was one of the bloodiest battles in nearly a year of fighting in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Two men, ages 72 and 61, were among the dead, and 102 people were wounded, Palestinian officials said.
The Israeli operation, coupled with the high death toll, raised the prospect of further bloodshed. A similar raid last month was followed by a deadly Palestinian attack outside a Jerusalem synagogue, and the Hamas militant group warned that “its patience is running out.”
In a move that could further raise tensions, Israel’s West Bank settler organization said Israeli officials had approved construction of nearly 2,000 new homes in West Bank settlements. The Israeli government did not immediately confirm the decision, which came just two days after the U.N. Security Council approved a watered-down statement opposing settlement construction.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Wednesday that the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory “is at its most combustible in years,” calling Israel’s operation in Nablus that left 10 Palestinians dead and over 80 injured “deeply concerning.” He urged stepped-up efforts to prevent the further escalation of violence, reduce tensions and restore calm.
The Israeli military said it entered Nablus on Wednesday to arrest three wanted militants suspected in previous shooting attacks in the West Bank, including the killing of an Israeli soldier last fall.
The military usually conducts raids at night in what it says is a tactic meant to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. It said it took advantage of a rare window of opportunity after intelligence services tracked down the men in a hideout and warned they posed an imminent threat.
The army said it surrounded the building and asked the men to surrender, but instead they opened fire. When one of the militants tried to flee the building, he was shot and killed, said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a military spokesman. The military then fired missiles at the house, he added, leaving it in ruins and killing the other two men.
A recently formed armed group based in the Old City of Nablus called the Lion’s Den, which has surged in prominence over the past months, confirmed the militants were its members.
During the raid, the military said armed men in the city “shot heavily toward the forces,” which responded with live fire. It said others hurled rocks and explosives at the troops. The military released a video taken from inside an armored vehicle as crowds of Palestinian youths pelt it with stones. There were no Israeli casualties.
Time-stamped security footage widely shared online appeared to show two unarmed young men running down a street. Gunshots are heard, and both fall to the ground, with one’s hat flying off his head. Both bodies remained still.
Hecht called the video “problematic,” and said the military was looking into it.
In the Old City of Nablus, people stared at the rubble that had been the large home in the centuries-old marketplace. From one end to the other, shops were riddled with bullets. Parked cars were crushed. Blood stained the cement ruins. Furniture from the destroyed home was scattered among mounds of debris.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 102 people were wounded, and six of them were in critical condition. Various Palestinian militant groups claimed six of the dead — including the three from Lion’s Den targeted in the raid — as members. But two men, ages 72 and 61, were also killed. There was no immediate word on whether the others belonged to armed groups.
Last month, Israeli troops killed 10 militants in a similar raid in the northern West Bank. The following day, a lone Palestinian gunman opened fire near a synagogue in an east Jerusalem settlement, killing seven people.
Days later, five Palestinian militants were killed in an Israeli arrest raid elsewhere in the West Bank. That was followed by a Palestinian car ramming that killed three Israelis, including two young brothers, in Jerusalem.
The fighting comes at a sensitive time, less than two months after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hard-line government took office. The government is dominated by ultranationalists who have pushed for tougher action against Palestinian militants. Israeli media have quoted top security officials as expressing concern that this could lead to even more violence.
Israeli police announced they were beefing up forces and going on heightened alert in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The Cabinet includes a number of West Bank settler leaders, one of whom has been promised authority over settlement construction.
Yesha, the settlement council, announced that Israeli planning officials had granted approval to nearly 2,000 new homes in settlements across the West Bank. The defense body that grants the approvals, the Civil Administration, said the meeting was still underway Wednesday and that an announcement would only be issued on Thursday, after the two-day session is over.
The Palestinians and most of the international community say settlements built on occupied lands are illegal and obstacles to peace. Over 700,000 settlers now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in 1967 and sought by the Palestinians for a future state.
The Israeli decision comes in the wake of the U.N. presidential statement that strongly criticized settlements. The U.S. blocked what would have been a legally binding council resolution.
American diplomats claimed to have extracted an Israeli pledge to halt unilateral action in order to block the resolution. The approval of new settlements by Israel would appear to defy that claim.
In the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the ruling Hamas militant group issued a veiled threat following the Nablus raid.
“The resistance in Gaza is observing the enemy’s escalating crimes against our people in the occupied West Bank, and its patience is running out,” said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the group.
Late Wednesday, Palestinian activists burned tires along Gaza’s frontier with Israel in protest.
Hamas has battled Israel in four wars since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, and Israeli officials have expressed concerns about rising tensions ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in the second half of March.
At least 55 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year, a pace that could exceed last year’s death toll. Last year, nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, making it the deadliest year in those areas since 2004, according to figures by the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
Israel says that most of those killed have been militants but others — including youths protesting the incursions and other people not involved in confrontations — have also been killed. An AP tally has found that just under half of those killed belonged to militant groups.
Israel says the military raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks while the Palestinians view them as further entrenchment of Israel’s open-ended, 55-year occupation.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians seek for their hoped-for independent state.