Jenin (Reuters) – Israeli forces launched drone strikes in the West Bank city of Jenin for the second time in less than two weeks overnight on Monday, as part of an operation that set off a gunbattle lasting into the morning and killed at least three people.
With the sounds of gunfire and explosives heard across the city hours after the strike and drones clearly audible overhead, the Jenin Brigades, a unit made up of different militant groups based in the city’s large refugee camp, said it was engaging the Israeli forces.
At least six drones could be seen circling over the city and the adjoining camp, a densely packed area that houses around 14,000 people in less than half a square kilometre.
“What is going on in the refugee camp is real war,” said Palestinian ambulance driver, Khaled Alahmad. “There were strikes from the sky targeting the camp, every time we drive in around five to seven ambulances and we come back full with injured people.”
The Palestinian health ministry confirmed at least three people had been killed and 27 wounded in Jenin, while another man was killed in the city of Ramallah after being shot in the head at a checkpoint.
The Israeli military said its forces struck a building that served as a command centre for fighters from the Jenin Brigades in what it described as an extensive counterterrorism effort in the West Bank.
Until last month, when it carried out a strike on June 21 near Jenin, the Israeli military had not used drone strikes in the West Bank since 2006. But the growing scale of the violence and the pressure on ground forces meant such tactics may continue, a military spokesman said.
“We’re really stretched,” he told journalists. “It’s because of the scale. And again, from our perception, this will minimize friction,” he said, saying the strikes were based on “precise intelligence”.
However, the apparent scale of the raid underlined the importance of Jenin in the violence that has surged across the occupied West Bank for more than a year.
Hundreds of fighters from militant groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah are based in the refugee camp, armed with an array of weapons smuggled into the West Bank or stolen from Israeli forces, and a growing arsenal of explosive devices.
Monday’s raid, involving a force described as “brigade-size” – suggesting around 1,000-2,000 troops – was intended to help “break the safe haven mindset of that camp, which has become a hornets nest,” the spokesman said.
But it was unclear whether the operation would trigger a wider response from Palestinian factions, drawing in militant groups in the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas.
“The resistance will confront the enemy and defend the Palestinian people and all options are open to strike the enemy and respond to its aggression on Jenin,” said a statement from the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group in Gaza.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said his forces were “closely monitoring the conduct of our enemies.
“The defence establishment is ready for all scenarios.”
As daylight broke on Monday in Jenin, thick black smoke from burning tyres set alight by residents swirled through the streets while calls to support the fighters rang out from loudspeakers in mosques.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the operation “a new war crime against our defenceless people.”
The Israeli military said the targeted building functioned as an “advanced observation and reconnaissance centre” and a weapons and explosives site as well as a coordination and communications hub for the militant fighters.
It provided an aerial photograph showing what it said was the target and which indicated the building hit was near two schools and a medical centre.
Only days before last month’s drone strike, the army used helicopter gunships to help extract troops and vehicles from a raid on the city, after fighters used explosives against a force sent in to arrest two militant suspects.
The escalating violence in the West Bank over the past 15 months has caused mounting international alarm, with regular army raids in cities like Jenin, a series of deadly attacks by Palestinians against Israelis and rampages by Jewish settler mobs against Palestinian villages.
Israel captured the West Bank, which the Palestinians see as the core of a future independent state, along with East Jerusalem and Gaza, in the 1967 Middle Eastern war. Following decades of conflict, peace talks that had been brokered by the United States have been frozen since 2014.