- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2023

An Israeli military raid Thursday in the occupied West Bank killed nine suspected Palestinian militants and sent regional tensions soaring ahead of a planned visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The nine Palestinians reported killed in the raid in Jenin, along with a 10th Palestinian killed in protests after the raid, marked the deadliest single day in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian clash in nearly two decades. Palestinian officials said they were calling for a general strike and suspending a joint security accord with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinian sources told reporters that the dead included fighters from all three major Palestinian militant factions: Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Another 20 people were reported wounded in the firefight.

No Israelis were reported killed in the raid. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of a number of hard-right officials in Mr. Netanyahu’s Cabinet, praised the Jenin operation.

“Any terrorist who tries to harm our personnel should know that his blood is forfeit,” he said in a statement.

Palestinian retaliation

With U.S. and international mediators pressing for calm, Palestinian leaders warned that the attack would not go unanswered. They said a 61-year-old woman was among those killed in the raid.

An armed response to the Jenin strike “will not take long,” deputy Hamas chief Saleh al-Arouri said in a statement.

After the raid, the Israeli Defense Ministry put the country’s forces in the occupied territory on heightened alert, The Associated Press reported.

The timing of the clash could hardly be worse for Mr. Blinken. The State Department formally announced his long-planned trip to Egypt and Israel just hours after the Jenin raid.

The visit, for now, includes visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah. It will be the top U.S. diplomat’s first face-to-face meeting with Mr. Netanyahu since the hard-line Israeli leader returned to power this month.

“A number of us have been working the phones since early this morning to get an understanding of what’s happening, what’s developing and to urge de-escalation and coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian security forces,” Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told reporters at a State Department briefing called to preview Mr. Blinken‘s trip.

The Palestinian Authority has suspended the security cooperation agreement with Israel to protest past clashes, but analysts feared the heavy death toll from Thursday’s raid could pose a deeper threat to the accord and clear the way for even more aggressive Israeli military action to root out known militant strongholds.

“Obviously, we don’t think this is the right step to take at this moment,” Ms. Leaf said. “Far from stepping back on security coordination, we believe it’s quite important that the parties retain – and, if anything, deepen – security coordination.”

The Jenin raid also could cast a shadow over Israel‘s efforts to deepen ties with long-hostile Arab states, a diplomatic initiative that Mr. Netanyahu helped initiate when he last served as prime minister in 2020.

The governments of Jordan, Turkey and Qatar all condemned the raid, as did the Organization of Islamic States.

“The Israeli occupation has become more reassured than ever before of impunity and unaccountability, which encouraged it to commit more crimes and violations against the brotherly Palestinian people, to kill civilians including children, women and the elderly, and to attack hospitals and vital civilian facilities,” the Qatari Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

U.N. Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said he was “deeply alarmed and saddened” by the violence.

Fierce battle

Witnesses described a fierce and lengthy gunbattle after Israeli Defense Forces soldiers approached a number of entrances to the Jenin site, known to be a hotbed of militant Palestinian activity.

Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila called the situation at the camp “very critical” and accused IDF forces of blocking ambulances from approaching the scene, the Reuters news agency reported.

The Palestinian death toll was the highest in a single gunbattle since the United Nations began keeping records in 2005, officials said.

The IDF has been conducting Operation Breakwater, a 9-month-old campaign begun under Mr. Netanayhu’s center-left predecessor, Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

The operation targeting Palestinian militant factions in Jenin and the neighboring West Bank city of Nablus had conducted raids on almost a nightly basis. Some 250 Palestinians and 30 Israelis died in fighting last year, and another 29 Palestinians have been killed in 2023, the highest casualty totals since the second intifada ended in 2005.

IDF officials said the raid was sparked by intelligence about “imminent” attacks on Israeli targets by fighters for Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Jenin camp.

The Israeli military circulated aerial video that it said was taken during the battle. The video showed what appeared to be Palestinians on rooftops hurling stones and firebombs onto Israeli forces below, AP reported. At least one Palestinian is shown opening fire from a rooftop.

Pressure on U.S.

Mr. Abbas was already under pressure to call off the security cooperation agreement with the Netanyahu government, and Mr. Blinken may find it hard to keep the agreement alive.

Some Palestinian leaders were saying the Biden administration, which has watched uneasily as the Netanyahu government took form, should have been more forceful in restraining its ally.

“The international powerlessness and silence is what encourages the occupation government to commit massacres against our people,” Minister of Information Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement. “Our people will remain steadfast and won’t give up Jerusalem and the holy sites, no matter what crimes and massacres the occupation forces commit.”

Some Israelis defend the need for Operation Breakwater by arguing that the “hands-off” approach to preventing terrorist attacks does not work.

“Supporters of the IDF’s current aggressive posture could say there is no way to predict exactly what will inspire more terrorists, but at least taking the fight to the terrorists keeps them away from Israeli civilians,” Yonah Jeremy Bob wrote in an analysis for The Jerusalem Post.

He said the “massive and intense firefight” raises the question of “whether Israel has made progress in quelling the nearly 11-month-long waves of terrorism or is stuck in a quagmire and stalemate – or perhaps whether it may even lead to a broader war.”

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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