Israel has launched a major aerial and ground offensive into the West Bank city of Jenin, its biggest military operation in the Palestinian territory in years, in what it described as an “extensive counter-terrorism effort”.
At least eight Palestinians were killed and 50 injured, 10 seriously, in the attack that began at about 1am on Monday, and the death toll is likely to rise, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
On Monday afternoon, Israeli sources suggested they would need at least another 24 hours to complete the operation.
Launching at least 10 drone strikes on buildings, a brigade of Israeli troops – suggesting between 1,000 and 2,000 soldiers – backed by armoured bulldozers and snipers on rooftops entered the city and its refugee camp, encountering fire from Palestinians, after Israel informed the White House of its plans.
The White House said it defended Israel’s right to security and was monitoring the situation on the West Bank closely. “We have seen the reports and are monitoring the situation closely,” a White House spokesperson said. “We support Israel’s security and right to defend its people against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups.”
A spokesperson for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, called the operation “a new war crime against our defenceless people”, while the Gaza-based militant group Hamas called on young men in the West Bank to join the fighting.
Lynn Hastings, the UN’s resident humanitarian coordinator, expressed alarm at the scale of Israeli forces operation in Jenin, adding on Twitter: “Airstrikes were used in the densely populated refugee camp. Several dead and critically wounded. Access to all injured must be ensured.”
In a joint statement, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the domestic intelligence service, Shin Bet, said they had attacked a command centre in the Jenin refugee camp that was used by a local militant group.
Images from inside Jenin showed armed and masked Palestinian fighters on the streets as gun battles and explosions continued into Monday morning.
At a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, the sound of increasingly heavy gun battles and aircraft overhead could be heard as the day wore on.
In an escalation of the violence, Israel carried out an airstrike near a mosque in the city that it said was being used by Palestinian gunmen to target Israeli forces. “Exchanges of fire are taking place with gunmen adjacent to a mosque in the Jenin refugee camp,” the IDF said. “An IDF aircraft struck to remove the threat.”
The incursion into Jenin is the first since the 2002 battle of Jenin during the second intifada, when more than 50 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in over a week of fighting, including 13 Israeli soldiers in a single incident.
Monday’s events bring the death toll of Palestinians killed this year in the West Bank to 133, part of more than a year-long rise in violence that has resulted in some of the worst bloodshed in that area in nearly two decades.
At dawn, thick black smoke from burning tyres set alight by residents swirled through the streets, and half a dozen Israeli drones flew above the city. As explosions echoed, calls to support the fighters rang out from loudspeakers in mosques and every entrance to the camp was surrounded by Israeli soldiers.
“There is bombing from the air and an invasion from the ground,” said Mahmoud al-Saadi, the director of the Palestine Red Crescent Society in Jenin. “Several houses and sites have been bombed … smoke is rising from everywhere.”
A Palestinian ambulance driver, Khaled Alahmad, said: “What is going on in the refugee camp is real war. 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 incursion came at a time of growing pressure within Israel for a tough response to a series of attacks on settlers, including a shooting last week that killed four people.
Electricity was cut off in some parts of Jenin and military bulldozers were ploughing through narrow streets –– another reminder of Israel’s incursions during the last uprising. Palestine and neighbouring Jordan condemned the violence.
The 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.
An IDF spokesperson, R Adm Daniel Hagari, said the operation was a focused, brigade-sized raid that was expected to last between one and three days, and Israel did not intend to hold ground.
One Israeli official said the raid was intended to “break the safe-haven mindset of the camp, which has become a hornets’ nest”. It was unclear whether the operation would trigger a wider response from Palestinian factions, drawing in militant groups in the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave controlled by Hamas.
A senior Hamas official called on young men in the West Bank to join the fighting. Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of the organisation’s political bureau, said: “To our heroes in the West Bank, from the south to the north: this is your day, young men. Fight with all the weapons, all your anger and with any means possible to defend our honour in Jenin.”
A statement from the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group in Gaza said: “The resistance will confront the enemy and defend the Palestinian people and all options are open to strike the enemy and respond to its aggression on Jenin.”
As the operation continued on Monday, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was briefed on progress and on the activity of the forces on the ground, discussing future operational plans.
The Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said his forces were “closely monitoring the conduct of our enemies. The defence establishment is ready for all scenarios.”
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 consider armed resistance and Israelis see 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 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 a drone strike last month 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 suspects.
After the last major raid in Jenin, Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis near a Jewish settlement in the West Bank in an attack that led to a rampage by settlers in Palestinian villages and towns.