JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli troops conducted a series of arrest raids against suspected Hamas militants across the occupied West Bank early Sunday, sparking a pair of gun battles in which five Palestinians were killed and two Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded.
It was the deadliest violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the West Bank in several weeks. The region has seen an increase in fighting in recent months, with tensions fueled by Israeli settlement construction, heightened militant activity in the northern West Bank and the aftermath of a bloody war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip last May.
Israeli officials said they had been tracking the Hamas militants for several weeks and that the raids were launched in response to immediate threats.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the militants were about to carry out attacks “in real time.” He praised the Israeli forces, saying they acted “as expected. They engaged the enemy and we back them completely.”
Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, an Israeli army spokesperson, said Israeli forces came under fire while carrying out the arrest raids. He said at least four Hamas operatives were killed and several others were arrested in the overnight operation.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said two Palestinians were shot dead near the northern West Bank city of Jenin and three others were killed in Biddu, north of Jerusalem. The Israeli military said an officer and soldier suffered serious injuries during the arrest in Burqin, near Jenin, and were airlifted to a hospital for medical treatment.
Hamas confirmed that four of the dead, including all three killed in Biddu, were members of the Islamic militant group. Palestinian officials said a 16-year-old boy was also among the dead, though it was not immediately known if he was a militant.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers semi-autonomous areas in the West Bank, condemned the killings and said the Israeli government was “fully and directly responsible for this bloody morning and the crimes committed by the occupation forces.”
But Hamas also criticized the Palestinian Authority, which maintains security coordination with Israel in a shared struggle against the Islamic group.
Hamas spokesman Abdulatif al-Qanou said that recent meetings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli officials “encouraged the occupation again to pursue the resistance.”
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip after seizing it from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, praised those killed as “heroic martyrs.” It called on its supporters to “devise tactics and means that harm the enemy and drain it with all possible forms of resistance.”
Also Sunday, Israel released Khalida Jarrar, a prominent Palestinian lawmaker, after nearly two years in prison. Jarrar, a senior figure in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has been in and out of Israeli prisons for years — often without being charged.
The PFLP has an armed wing and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and Western countries, but Jarrar has not been implicated in attacks. She was sentenced to two years in prison in March for membership in a banned group but given credit for time already served. She was freed several weeks before her sentence was to end.
Recent months have seen a rise in violence in the West Bank, with more than two dozen Palestinians killed in sporadic clashes with Israeli troops and during protests.
Many of the clashes have occurred near Beita, a Palestinian village where residents regularly demonstrate against an unauthorized settlement outpost, and near Jenin, which is known as a militant stronghold.
Last month, Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian gunmen during a late night raid in Jenin, killing four Palestinians. Sunday’s clashes came a week after Israel recaptured the last of six Palestinian fugitives who tunneled out of a maximum-security Israeli prison earlier this month. The escapees were from Jenin, and two were caught there after an extensive search.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has established dozens of settlements where nearly 500,000 settlers reside. The Palestinians seek the West Bank as part of their future state and view the settlements as a major obstacle to resolving the conflict.