Israel says Palestinian militants fired rockets after raid
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military said Palestinian militants fired six rockets from the Gaza Strip toward the country's south early Thursday, hours after an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank triggered a fierce gunbattle in which 11 Palestinians were killed.
The rocket attacks, which were not immediately claimed by Palestinian militant groups, appear to be triggered by the Wednesday morning raid in Nablus.
The Israeli military said air defenses intercepted five of the rockets which were fired toward the cities of Ashkelon and Sderot. One missile landed in an open field. Israeli aircraft then struck several targets in northern and central Gaza. There were no reports of injuries in Israel or Gaza.
Among the dead in Nablus were three Palestinian men, ages 72, 66 and 61, and a 16-year-old boy, according to health officials. Scores of others were wounded.
It was one of the bloodiest battles in nearly a year of fighting in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and raised the likelihood of further bloodshed. Israeli police said they were on heightened alert, while the Hamas militant group in Gaza said its patience was “running out.” Islamic Jihad, another militant group, vowed to retaliate.
The four-hour operation left a broad swath of damage in a centuries-old marketplace in Nablus, a city known as a militant stronghold.
In one emotional scene, an overwhelmed medic pronounced a man dead, only to notice the lifeless patient was his father. Elsewhere, an amateur video showed two men, apparently unarmed, being shot as they ran in the street.
Israel has been carrying out stepped-up arrest raids of wanted militants in the West Bank since a series of deadly Palestinian attacks in Israel last spring.
Israeli officials liken these operations to “mowing the lawn,” saying they are necessary to prevent a difficult situation from turning worse. But the raids have shown few signs of slowing the violence, and in cases like Wednesday's operation, can raise the likelihood of reprisals.
The Israeli military said it entered Nablus, the West Bank’s commercial center, to arrest three militants suspected in previous shooting attacks. The main suspect was wanted in 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. But military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said forces moved quickly after intelligence services tracked down the men in a hideout.
Hecht said Israeli forces surrounded the building and asked the men to surrender, but instead they opened fire. One militant who tried to flee the building was shot and killed. He said the military then fired missiles at the house, flattening the building and killing the other two men.
At the same time, he said, troops that had set up an outside perimeter came under heavy fire, setting off an intense gunfight. The military said others hurled rocks and explosives at the troops, and officials released a video taken from inside an armored vehicle as crowds of Palestinian youths pelted it with stones. There were no Israeli casualties.
The influx of wounded overwhelmed the city’s Najah Hospital, said Ahmad Aswad, the head nurse of the cardiology department.
The 36-year-old medic told The Associated Press that he saw many patients shot in the chest, head and thighs. “They shot to kill,” he said.
In a moment he said will haunt him, he and a colleague carefully extracted a bullet from a 61-year-old man’s heart. After the chaos subsided and they pronounced their patient dead, they looked at the man’s face. It was his colleague’s father, Abdelaziz Ashqar.
His colleague, Elias Ashqar, was overcome and went silent. “It didn’t feel like we were in reality,” Aswad said.
In the Old City of Nablus, people stared at the rubble that had been a 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.
Time-stamped security footage widely shared online appeared to show two young men running down a street. Gunshots are heard, and both fall to the ground, with one’s hat flying off his head.
The two men did not appear to be armed, but the video did not show the events that led to the shooting.
Hecht called the video “problematic,” and said the military was looking into it.
Various Palestinian militant groups claimed six of the dead — including the three targeted in the raid — as members. There was no immediate word on whether the others belonged to armed groups. Later, officials said a 66-year-old man had died from tear gas inhalation.
As the bodies were paraded through the crowd on stretchers, thousands of people packed the streets, chanting in support of the militants. Masked men fired into the air.
Israel’s police force said it was beefing up security in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in anticipation of violence.
Last month, Israeli troops killed 10 people in a similar raid in the northern West Bank. In response, Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza. 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 and vowed to entrench Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank. Israeli media have quoted top security officials as expressing concern that this could lead to even more violence as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches.
The Cabinet includes a number of West Bank settler leaders. In a move that could further raise tensions, Yesha, the settlement council, announced that Israeli planning officials had granted approval to nearly 2,000 new homes in settlements across the West Bank. There was no immediate confirmation from the government, but an announcement was expected Thursday.
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.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. recognizes Israel’s “very real” security concerns, but was also “deeply concerned” about the deaths and injuries from the raid.
He urged both sides to avoid steps that could “inflame tensions,” including the possible approval of new settlements.
The Israeli decision comes in the wake of a U.N. presidential statement that strongly criticized settlements. The U.S. blocked what would have been a stronger, legally binding council resolution.
American diplomats claimed to have extracted an Israeli pledge to halt unilateral action to block the resolution. The approval of new settlements by Israel would appear to undermine that claim.
The Palestinian ambassador to the U.N., Riyad Mansour, urged the international community "to put an end to these massacres against our people.”
In the Gaza Strip, Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the ruling Hamas militant group, warned that Hamas' "patience is running out,” he said.
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.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad Al-Nakhala called the Israeli raid a “huge crime.”
“It is our duty as resistance forces to respond to this crime without hesitation,” he said.
Nearly 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year, according to an AP tally.
Last year, nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in those areas, making it the deadliest year there since 2004, according to figures by the Israeli rights group B’Tselem. Some 30 people on the Israeli side were killed in Palestinian attacks.
Tufaha reported from Nablus. Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed reporting.
Josef Federman And Aref Tufaha, The Associated Press