By Ali Sawafta

JENIN, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli forces began withdrawing from the Palestinian city of Jenin on Tuesday, a defence source and Reuters witnesses said, after carrying out one of their biggest military operations in the occupied West Bank for years.

Two Reuters witnesses said they saw convoys of Israeli military vehicles leaving Jenin in what appeared to signal an end to an Israeli operation that began there early on Monday.

Explosions could still be heard in the northern West Bank city amid reports of a gunbattle in or near a Jenin hospital. Reuters could not immediately verify the details of that incident.

The operation, which the army said was aimed at destroying militant infrastructure and weapons in the Jenin refugee camp, was launched with a drone strike on Monday, and over 1,000 troops have been deployed.

At least 12 people have been killed, Palestinian officials said.

“At this moment we are completing the mission, and I can say that our extensive activity in Jenin is not a one-time operation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a checkpoint near the city.

The densely populated refugee camp, where some 14,000 people live in less than half a square kilometre, has been one of the focal points of a wave of violence that has swept the West Bank for more than a year, drawing growing international alarm.

A car-ramming and stabbing attack in Israel’s business hub Tel Aviv, in which eight people were hurt, on Tuesday underscored the risk that of a further escalation as happened after a previous raid on Jenin did last month.

The Palestinian Islamist Hamas group said the assailant, who was shot dead at the scene, was one of its members and that the attack was a response to the Jenin operation.


In Jenin, drones circulated overhead and sporadic gunfire and explosions sounded near the refugee camp, which fighters from militant groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah have fortified with a range of obstacles and watching posts to counter regular army raids.

Power and water supplies remained cut off in the camp and in some areas of the city for a second day after bulldozers that ploughed up roads looking for improvised bombs cut power cables and a main water pipe.

Israeli forces uncovered several underground explosives caches, one concealed in a tunnel under a mosque, confiscated 1,000 weapons and arrested 30 suspects, the military said.

Late on Monday, the Palestinian Red Crescent said it had evacuated 500 families from the camp, around 3,000 people, and UN agencies expressed alarm at the scale of the operation.

Trucks brought food, water and other supplies collected by volunteers in the nearby city of Nablus to Jenin where they were distributed at hospitals and social centres to those displaced by the fighting.

Jihad Hassan, 63, who fled the camp with his family after his son was wounded, said the drone strike had prompted him to leave.

“You don’t hear a sound, you just see the explosion,” he said, as he waited with his son at the Jenin Government Hospital. “It is something, when a person is forced to leave their home.”

Around 100 people have been injured, 20 of them critically, the Palestinian health ministry said.

The Islamic Jihad faction claimed four of the dead as its fighters. Hamas, another Islamist faction, claimed a fifth. The status of the others was unclear, although Israeli officials said as far as they were aware, no civilians had been killed.

Many offices and businesses across the Israeli-occupied West Bank closed on Tuesday in response to calls for a general strike to protest the operation, which the Palestinian Authority has described as a “war crime”.

The fighting further underlined once more the lack of any sign of a political solution to the decades-long conflict and international reaction to the operation was mixed. The United States said it respected Israel’s right to defend itself but said it was imperative to avoid civilian casualties.

Mohammed Moustafa Orfy, Egypt’s permanent representative to the Arab League, said the Jenin operation would hinder efforts to bring reconciliation after months of escalating violence. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain condemned the operation.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Raneen Sawafta in Jenin and Ronen Zvulun near Jenin; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Conor Humphries and Mark Heinrich)

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