JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) — Israel withdrew troops from a West Bank militant stronghold Wednesday but warned that its most intense military operation in the occupied territory in nearly two decades was not a one-off. Thirteen Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in the two-day raid.
Residents of the Jenin refugee camp emerged from their homes to find alleys lined by piles of rubble and flattened or scorched cars. Shopkeepers and bulldozers started clearing the debris. Thousands who had fled the fighting began returning.
The army claimed to have inflicted heavy damage on militant groups in the operation which included a series of airstrikes and hundreds of ground troops. But it remained unclear whether there would be any lasting effect after nearly a year and a half of heavy fighting in the West Bank.
Ahead of the withdrawal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to carry out similar operations if needed.
“At these moments we are completing the mission, and I can say that our extensive operation in Jenin is not a one-off,” he said during a visit to a military post on the outskirts of Jenin. “We will eradicate terrorism wherever we see it and we will strike at it.”
The Jenin raid was one of the most intense Israeli military operations in the West Bank since an armed Palestinian uprising against Israel's open-ended occupation ended two decades ago.
Some of the scenes from Jenin, including massive army bulldozers tearing through camp alleys, were eerily similar to those from a major Israeli incursion in 2002, which lasted for eight days and became known as the battle of Jenin.
Both operations, two decades apart, were meant to crush militant groups in the camp and deter and prevent attacks on Israelis emanating from the camp. In each case, the army claimed success.
However, the continued cycle of army raids and Palestinian attacks raised new questions about Israel’s tactics. This week’s raid had wide support across Israel’s political spectrum, but some critics in Israel argued the impact is short-lived, with slain gunmen quickly replaced by others.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose autonomy government administers parts of the West Bank, has rejected violence against Israelis, but has effectively lost control over several strongholds of gunmen.
Many Palestinians see the actions of the gunmen as an inevitable result of 56 years of occupation and the absence of any political process with Israel. They also point to increased West Bank settlement construction and violence by extremist settlers.
Palestinian health officials said 13 Palestinians were killed in Jenin and more than 140 were wounded, including 83 who needed treatment in hospitals. Dr. Wissam Bakr, the head of Jenin Hospital, said most of the wounded were shot in the head and chest, and that 20 suffered severe injuries.
The Israeli military has claimed it killed only militants, but it has not provided details.
Summing up the raid, the military said it had confiscated thousands of weapons, bomb-making materials and caches of money. Weapons were found in militant hideouts and civilian areas alike, in one case beneath a mosque, the military said.
The withdrawal came hours after a Hamas militant rammed his car into a crowded Tel Aviv bus stop and began stabbing people, wounding eight, including a pregnant woman who reportedly lost her baby. The attacker was killed by an armed bystander. Hamas said the attack was revenge for the Israeli offensive.
Early Wednesday, militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza also fired five rockets toward Israel, which Israel said were intercepted. Israeli jets struck several sites in Gaza.
The large-scale raid comes amid a more than yearlong spike in violence that has created a challenge for Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is dominated by ultranationalists who have called for tougher action against Palestinian militants only to see the fighting worsen.
Over 140 Palestinians have been killed this year in the West Bank, and Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis have killed at least 25 people, including a shooting last month that killed four settlers.
The sustained operation has raised warnings from humanitarian groups of a deteriorating situation.
Doctors Without Borders accused the army of firing tear gas into a hospital, filling the emergency room with smoke and forcing emergency patients to be treated in a main hall.
The U.N.’s human rights chief said the scale of the operation “raises a host of serious issues with respect to international human rights norms and standards, including protecting and respecting the right to life.”
Kefah Ja’ayyasah, a camp resident, said soldiers forcibly entered her home and locked the family inside.
“They took the young men of my family to the upper floor, and they left the women and children trapped in the apartment at the first floor,” she said, speaking before the army withdrawal.
She claimed soldiers would not let her take food to the children and blocked an ambulance crew from entering the home when she yelled for help, before eventually allowing the family passage to a hospital.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.