Israel withdrew troops from a West Bank militant stronghold Wednesday but warned that its most intense military operation in the occupied territory in nearly two decades was not a one-off. Thirteen Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in the two-day raid.
Residents of the Jenin refugee camp emerged from their homes to find alleys lined by piles of rubble and flattened or scorched cars. Shopkeepers and bulldozers started clearing the debris. Thousands who had fled the fighting began returning.
The army claimed to have inflicted heavy damage on militant groups in the operation which included a series of airstrikes and hundreds of ground troops. But it remained unclear whether there would be any lasting effect after nearly a year and a half of heavy fighting in the West Bank.
Ahead of the withdrawal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to carry out similar operations if needed.
“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 during a visit to a military post on the outskirts of Jenin. “We will eradicate terrorism wherever we see it and we will strike at it.”
The Jenin raid was one of the most intense Israeli military operations in the West Bank since an armed Palestinian uprising against Israel’s open-ended occupation ended two decades ago.
Some of the scenes from Jenin, including massive army bulldozers tearing through camp alleys, were eerily similar to those from a major Israeli incursion in 2002, which lasted for eight days and became known as the battle of Jenin.
Both operations, two decades apart, were meant to crush militant groups in the camp and deter and prevent attacks on Israelis emanating from the camp. In each case, the army claimed success.
However, the continued cycle of army raids and Palestinian attacks raised new questions about Israel’s tactics. This week’s raid had wide support across Israel’s political spectrum, but some critics in Israel argued the impact is short-lived, with slain gunmen quickly replaced by others.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose autonomy government administers parts of the West Bank, has rejected violence against Israelis, but has effectively lost control over several strongholds of gunmen.
Many Palestinians see the actions of the gunmen as an 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.
Palestinian health officials said 13 Palestinians were killed in Jenin and more than 140 were wounded, including 83 who needed treatment in hospitals. Dr. Wissam Bakr, the head of Jenin Hospital, said most of the wounded were shot in the head and chest, and that 20 suffered severe injuries.
The Israeli military has claimed it killed only militants, but it has not provided details.
Summing up the raid, 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 withdrawal 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.