Israel has begun a major aerial and ground offensive in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, its biggest military operation in the Palestinian territory in years, as violence continues to surge in the conflict.
At least five Palestinians were killed and 28 injured in the attack that began at about 1am on Monday, with the death toll likely to rise, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
Gun battles with Palestinian fighters and explosions continued into Monday morning, in the raid the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said targeted a major command centre for the Jenin Brigades militant group in the city’s slum-like refugee camp.
“What is going on in the refugee camp is real war,” said a Palestinian ambulance driver, Khaled Alahmad. “There were strikes from the sky. Every time we drive in around five to seven ambulances and we come back full with injured people.”
The Jenin operation led to protests overnight across the West Bank, including at a checkpoint near the city of Ramallah, in which a Palestinian man died after being shot in the head by the army. Israel’s air defence systems were put on alert for potential retaliatory rocket fire from the blockaded Gaza Strip after several Palestinian factions vowed revenge.
An IDF spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said the Jenin operation was a focused, brigade-sized raid that was expected to last between one and three days, and that Israel did not intend to hold ground.
As dawn broke on Monday, drones continued to circle over the city. The IDF carried out its first drone strike in more than 15 years in Jenin last month, marking a major escalation in this year’s fighting, but declined to specify what kind of aerial attack was carried out in Monday’s operation.
The camp on the outskirts of the northern West Bank city was set up in the 1950s and the ghetto-like area, home to about 11,000 people, has long been viewed as a hotbed of what Palestinians see as armed resistance, and Israelis as terrorism.
Hundreds of armed fighters from militant groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah are based there, and the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority has next to no presence.
The Jenin Brigades, a unit made up of armed men from different factions, has been blamed for several terror attacks against Israeli citizens as the security situation across Israel and the West Bank has deteriorated over the past 18 months.
Jenin and nearby Nablus have been the major targets of the now-more-than-year-old Israeli Operation Breakwater, which has involved near-nightly raids and some of the fiercest fighting in the West Bank since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, came to an end in 2005. Vigilante attacks by West-Bank based Israeli settlers against Palestinian villages are also growing in scale and scope.
Only days before last month’s drone strike in Jenin, for the first time since the second intifada, 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.
More than 180 Palestinians and 24 Israelis have been killed this year in the escalating violence, inflaming fears that the region is moving closer towards a new chapter of full-scale conflict.