Fiercest fighting in years erupts in West Bank camp of Jenin, at least 5 Palestinians killed

Palestinians take cover during fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants outside of a hospital in the West Bank city of Jenin, Monday, June 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — Israeli military forces raided a refugee camp in the northern West Bank on Monday, igniting the fiercest day of fighting in years as Palestinian militants detonated roadside bombs and Israeli helicopter gunships struck Palestinian gunmen to rescue troops trapped in the hourslong firefight.

At least five Palestinians were killed, including a 15-year-old boy, and over 90 others were wounded, Palestinian health officials said. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad group claimed three of those killed as its militants. Eight Israeli soldiers were also wounded, the army said.

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The Israeli military said forces stormed into the Jenin refugee camp in the early morning to arrest two wanted militants. They faced fierce resistance. Palestinian militants said they ambushed Israeli armored vehicles with explosive devices, disabling several vehicles with troops trapped inside.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht described Palestinian militants’ use of powerful roadside bombs as “very unusual and dramatic.” Five mangled vehicles were stuck in the firefight for hours, requiring the military to dispatch helicopters as part of an elaborate evacuation operation.

It was the first such use of a helicopter gunship in the occupied West Bank since the second Palestinian uprising around two decades ago, Israeli media reported. The highly militarized Jenin refugee camp witnessed some of the biggest battles at the time.

At least one Apache helicopter fired missiles at Palestinian gunmen to try to clear the area while security forces worked to extract the trapped vehicles, the Israeli army said. The local branch of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad based in Jenin said its fighters opened fire at the combat helicopter. The group praised the militants and warned Israel to “reconsider its calculations before its soldiers set foot on Jenin’s land.”

The Israeli army said that the Palestinian gunfire caused minor damage to the spinning tail rotor of a helicopter.

Witnesses described the nearly 10 hours of fighting as a bedlam of gunfire and explosions.

“They were shooting at anything and everything that moved,” hospital director Tawfik al-Shobaki said of Israeli forces.

As the Israeli military eventually withdrew its damaged vehicles from the camp in the late afternoon, Palestinians ventured out to assess the heavy damage and bury their dead.

The Palestinian Health Ministry identified those killed as Khaled Asasa, 21, Qassam Abu Sariya, 29, Qais Jabarin, 21, Ahmed Daraghmeh, 19, and 15-year-old Ahmed Saqr. Of the 91 Palestinians wounded, at least 12 were in critical condition, hospital officials said. Wissam Bakar, director of Jenin Government Hospital, said a 15-year-old girl was among the critically wounded.

Islamic Jihad claimed three of the dead as its fighters — Qais Jabarin, Qassam Abu Sariya and Ahmed Daraghmeh.

A Palestinian cameraman, Hazem Nasser, wearing a clearly marked press vest, was among those seriously wounded in the fighting. His colleagues said he was shot when a building — where journalists had camped out to cover the clashes — came under Israeli fire.

“Of course there was a lot of shooting and explosions, but everyone knew we were journalists covering it,” fellow freelance journalist Alaa Badarneh said. “All of a sudden we were surrounded and the army started shooting toward us.”

An Associated Press journalist at the scene said that he saw the military shoot directly at Nasser.

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