Israeli troops on Wednesday entered a major Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank in a rare, daytime arrest operation, triggering fighting that killed at least nine Palestinians and wounded scores of others.
It was one of the bloodiest battles in over nearly a year of fighting. A 72-year-old man was among the nine killed and 102 people were wounded, Palestinian officials said.
The brazen raid, coupled with the high death toll, raised the prospect of further bloodshed. A similar raid last month was followed by a deadly attack outside a Jerusalem synagogue, and the Hamas militant group warned that “its patience is running out.”
The Israeli military gave few details about its operation in the territory’s northern city of Nablus, which is known as a militant stronghold. The army frequently operates there in what it describes as a crackdown on militant groups.
However, the Israeli army usually carries out its operations at night, when it says the risk of civilian casualties is lower. There was no immediate explanation for Wednesday’s raid, which took place just before noon.
In the Old City of Nablus, people stared at the rubble that had been a large home in the centuries-old casbah. 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.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said of the 102 people wounded, six were in critical condition. Palestinian militant groups claimed three of the dead as members. But a 72-year-old man was also killed. There was no immediate word on whether the others belonged to armed groups.
Amateur video footage appeared to show Israeli troops operating in downtown Nablus, and army vehicles firing tear gas canisters.
Last month, Israeli troops killed 10 militants in a similar raid in the northern West Bank. The following day, a lone Palestinian gunman opened fire near a synagogue in an east Jerusalem settlement, killing seven people.
Days later, five Palestinians 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.
In the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the ruling Hamas militant group issued a veiled threat.
“The resistance in Gaza is observing the enemy’s escalating crimes against our people in the occupied West Bank, and its patience is running out,” said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the group.
The group has battled Israel to four wars since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, and Israeli officials have expressed concerns about rising tensions ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in March.
At least 55 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year, a pace that could exceed last year’s death toll. Last year, nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, making it the deadliest year in those areas since 2004, according to figures by the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
Israel says that most of those killed have been militants but others – including youths protesting the incursions and other people not involved in confrontations – have also been killed. An AP tally has found that just under half of those killed belonged to militant groups.
Israel says the military raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks while the Palestinians view them as further entrenchment of Israel’s open-ended, 55-year occupation.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians seek for their hoped-for independent state.
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