TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Palestinian militants in Gaza launched rockets at southern Israel and Israeli aircraft struck targets in the coastal enclave early Thursday after a deadly gunbattle with Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank killed 10 Palestinians.
The bloodshed extends one of the deadliest periods in years in the West Bank, where dozens of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the start of the year. Palestinian attacks on Israelis in the same period have killed 11 people.
The Israeli military said Palestinian militants fired six rockets and two anti-aircraft missiles from the Gaza Strip toward the country’s south early Thursday. Air defenses intercepted five of the rockets and one landed in an open field, according to the military. The missiles did not hit their targets. The attacks were not immediately claimed by Palestinian militant groups.
Israeli aircraft then struck several targets in northern and central Gaza, including a weapons manufacturing site and a military compound belonging to the Hamas militant group that rules the enclave. There were no reports of injuries in Israel or Gaza from the rocket attacks or strikes.
The violence comes in the first weeks of Israel’s new far-right government, which has promised to take a tough line against Palestinians, and as security forces step up arrest raids of wanted militants in the West Bank. Israel says the raids – begun in the wake of a series of deadly Palestinian attacks last spring – are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future assaults.
But the operations have shown few signs of slowing the violence and Wednesday’s resulted in one of the bloodiest battles in nearly a year in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, raising the likelihood of further bloodshed.
“We have a clear policy: to strike terror powerfully and to deepen our roots in our land,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of his Cabinet. “We will settle accounts with whoever harms Israeli citizens.”
Israeli police stepped up security in sensitive areas on Thursday, while Hamas said its patience was “running out.” Islamic Jihad, another militant group, vowed to retaliate.
A day after a raid in January on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank that killed 10 Palestinians, a Palestinian shot and killed seven people outside a synagogue in east Jerusalem.
On Thursday, police said security guards at the entrance to a West Bank settlement shot and lightly wounded a woman who police said attempted to stab the guards.
Among those killed in Wednesday’s raid in Nablus were Palestinian men aged 72 and 61, and a 16-year-old boy, according to health officials. Scores of others were wounded. Various Palestinian militant groups claimed six of the dead as members. There was no immediate word on whether the others belonged to armed groups. Separately, officials said a 66-year-old man died from tear gas inhalation.
In response to the raid, a strike was called across the West Bank, and schools, universities and shops all shut down in protest. Schools and universities in Gaza and most shops in east Jerusalem were also closed.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.
The Israeli military said it entered Nablus, the West Bank’s commercial center and a city known as a militant stronghold, to arrest three militants suspected in previous shooting attacks. The main suspect was wanted in the killing of an Israeli soldier last fall.
Wednesday’s four-hour operation left a broad swath of damage in a centuries-old marketplace in Nablus. In the Old City, shops were riddled with bullets, parked cars were crushed, and blood stained the cement ruins. Furniture from the destroyed home was scattered among mounds of debris.
The influx of wounded overwhelmed the city’s Najah Hospital, said Ahmad Aswad, the head nurse of the cardiology department.
In one emotional scene, a 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. Military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said the armed forces were looking into it.
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.
The fighting comes at a sensitive time, less than two months after Netanyahu’s new hard-line government took office. It presents an early challenge for Netanyahu, who on top of spiraling violence is also facing waves of protests from Israelis against a plan to overhaul the country’s justice system.
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, including by ramping up settlement construction on lands Palestinians seek for their future state. Israeli media have quoted top security officials as expressing concern that the harder line could lead to even more violence as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches.
About 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
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.
Israel says most of those killed were militants. But young people protesting the raids and others not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.
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