Israeli troops disguised as Palestinians killed an Islamic Jihad commander and two activists in Jenin on Wednesday in a new crackdown in the north of the occupied West Bank.Israel also relaunched a massive hunt for fighters in Nablus, south of Jenin, sending in around 100 jeeps and armoured vehicles, just 24 hours after withdrawing from the West Bank’s second-largest city after a two-day siege.
The Palestinians have condemned the Israeli operations, saying they threatened US-led efforts to rekindle the long-stalled peace process.
In Jenin, the undercover force opened fire on a car carrying the fighters, killing Ashraf Saadi, 25, a senior Jihad leader in the West Bank, and Alaa Breiki, 26, Palestinian security sources said.
A third man, Mohammad Abu Naasa, 22, was wounded, but a soldier finished him off with a bullet to the head, witnesses said.
“One of the soldiers took out his pistol and shot him in the head,” said a witness, declining to be named.
An Israeli security source said “the two were instantly killed in a car. The third was wounded, stepped out of the car, opened fire at the soldiers and was shot down.” The soldiers came to Jenin intending to arrest the fighters and opened fire only after the men spotted the undercover unit and fired at it, the source said.
“Saadi identified them and fired,” lightly wounding one soldier, the source said. “The troops opened fire and killed them.” The trio was “involved in planning and carrying out attacks against the army and planning suicide bombings,” the source said, adding that the cell was also behind an attempted suicide bombing in Tel Aviv last week.
After the shooting, around 30 army jeeps moved into Jenin’s refugee camp to carry out house-to-house searches for other fighters. They left after several hours.
Islamic Jihad responded by launching five rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip, causing minor damage to a fence in the Negev desert, according to army radio.
“This strike is a natural reaction to the Zionist crimes and our first response to the assassination of Islamic Jihad leaders in Jenin,” Islamic Jihad said.
Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad condemned the international community for failing “to lift even a finger to stop the Israeli crimes and massacres.” The ruling Islamist movement later issued a statement calling on its military wing to avenge the “Israeli crime.” “We call on Hamas’ armed wing, the Izzeddine Al Qassam Brigades, to respond to the Zionist enemy and defend the Palestinian people everywhere because the Zionists only understand the language of force,” it said.
Wednesday’s operation comes a week after Israeli security forces arrested a member of Islamic Jihad from a village on the outskirts of Jenin who had smuggled a suicide belt to a suburb south of Tel Aviv.
An Islamist movement considered close to Iran, the Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for most of the suicide attacks in Israel over the past two years, including a January 29 blast in the Red Sea resort of Eilat that killed three Israeli civilians.
On February 12, the United States, Israel’s main ally, announced a $5m reward for information leading to the capture of Islamic Jihad’s general secretary, Ramadan Abdullah Mohammad Shallah, based in Damascus.
In Nablus, around 100 jeeps and armoured vehicles swarmed into the city centre in the early hours, reimposing a curfew on the old city and encircling several buildings to the sound of sporadic machinegun fire.
Around 20 Palestinians, mostly relatives of fighters, were detained by the soldiers, according to Palestinian security sources.
The army said it had not made any arrests.
Troops had pulled back on Tuesday after a two-day operation that left one Palestinian civilian dead and dozens wounded in Israel’s largest crackdown in Nablus in seven months.
Israel says Nablus is a “terrorist hub” and the army regularly launches arrest raids in the city and outlying refugee camps.
In the past 12 months, such â€œraids have netted 834 wanted militantsâ€, an army spokesman said. Last year, according to the army, Israel foiled 170 bomb plots, 119 of which originated in Nablus.
Last July, at least eight Palestinians were killed in a vast Israeli operation in Nablus that destroyed most of the local Palestinian Authority headquarters.
In the southern city of Hebron, meanwhile, the army arrested a Hamas deputy, Hatem Qafisheh, security sources said.