JENIN: The Israeli military began withdrawing troops from a militant stronghold in the occupied West Bank late Tuesday, security officials said, winding down an intense two-day operation that killed at least 12 Palestinians, confiscated hundreds of weapons and left a wide swath of damage in its wake.
But heavy fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants continued in parts of the Jenin refugee camp, delaying the planned pullout.
The development came hours after a Hamas militant rammed his car into a crowded Tel Aviv bus stop and began stabbing people, wounding eight, including a pregnant woman who reportedly lost her baby. The attacker was killed by an armed bystander. Hamas said the attack was revenge for the Israeli offensive.
Visiting a military post outside Jenin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated the operation, one of the most intense in the territory in nearly two decades, was nearing its end. But he vowed to carry out similar operations in the future.
“At these moments we are completing the mission, and I can say that our extensive operation in Jenin is not a one-off,” he said.
The Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike late Tuesday targeting a militant cell located in a cemetery. It said the gunmen threatened forces moving out of the camp. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Israeli and Palestinian officials also reported fighting near a hospital in Jenin late Tuesday. An Associated Press reporter on the ground could hear explosions and the sound of gunfire. Palestinian hospital officials told the official Wafa news agency that three civilians were hit by Israeli fire.
An Israeli security official confirmed that troops had begun to leave, but said the withdrawal was complicated by the fighting. He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.
Israel struck the camp, known as a bastion of Palestinian militants, early Monday in an operation it said was aimed at destroying and confiscating weapons. Palestinian health officials said 12 people had been killed and dozens wounded.
Big military bulldozers tore through alleyways, leaving heavy damage to roads and buildings, and thousands of residents fled the camp. People said electricity and water were knocked out. The army says the bulldozers were necessary because roads were booby-trapped with explosives.
The military said it had confiscated thousands of weapons, bomb-making materials and caches of money. Weapons were found in militant hideouts and civilian areas alike, in one case beneath a mosque, the military said.
The large-scale raid comes amid a more than yearlong spike in violence that has created a challenge for Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is dominated by ultranationalists who have called for tougher action against Palestinian militants only to see the fighting worsen.
Over 140 Palestinians have been killed this year in the West Bank, and Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis have killed at least 25 people, including a shooting last month that killed four settlers.
The sustained operation has raised warnings from humanitarian groups of a deteriorating situation.
Doctors Without Borders accused the army of firing tear gas into a hospital, filling the emergency room with smoke and forcing emergency patients to be treated in a main hall.
The office of the UN’s human rights chief said the scale of the operation “raises a host of serious issues with respect to international human rights norms and standards, including protecting and respecting the right to life.”
With airstrikes and a large presence of ground troops, the raid bore hallmarks of Israeli military tactics during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s.
But there are also differences. It’s more limited in scope, with Israeli military operations focused on several strongholds of Palestinian militants.
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a hard-line settler leader, rushed to the scene of Tuesday’s attack in Tel Aviv.
“We knew that terror would raise its head,” Ben-Gvir said. He praised the person who killed the attacker and called for arming more citizens, as he was heckled by an angry onlooker.
The attacker was identified as a 20-year-old Palestinian man from the southern West Bank city of Hebron.
The Islamic militant group Hamas praised him as a “martyr fighter” and called the ramming “heroic and revenge for the military operation in Jenin.” Islamic Jihad, a militant group with a large presence in Jenin, also praised the assault.
It was not immediately clear if the man was dispatched by Hamas or acted on his own.
In Jenin, rubble littered the streets, and columns of black smoke periodically rose above the skyline over the camp, which has been a flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian violence for years.
Jenin Mayor Nidal Al-Obeidi said around 4,000 Palestinians, nearly one third of the camp, had fled to stay with relatives or in shelters.
Kefah Ja’ayyasah, a camp resident, said soldiers forcibly entered her home and locked the family inside.
“They took the young men of my family to the upper floor, and they left the women and children trapped in the apartment at the first floor,” she said.
She claimed soldiers would not let her take food to the children and blocked an ambulance crew from entering the home when she yelled for help, before eventually allowing the family passage to a hospital.
Across the West Bank, Palestinians observed a general strike to protest the Israeli raid.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said Tuesday that the two-day death toll rose to 12. The Israeli military has claimed at least 10 were militants, but did not provide details. There was no immediate information on the latest deaths.
The Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank and three Arab countries with normalized ties with Israel — Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — have condemned Israel’s incursion, as did Saudi Arabia and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Israel has been carrying out near daily raids in the West Bank in response to a series of deadly Palestinian attacks in early 2022. It says the raids are meant to crack down on Palestinians militants and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say such violence is the inevitable result of 56 years of occupation and the absence of any political process with Israel. They also point to increased West Bank settlement construction and violence by extremist settlers.
Israel says most of those killed have been militants, but stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and people uninvolved in confrontations have also died.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.