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Five Palestinians killed; at least 4 were terror operatives

IDF believes members of Hamas cell targeted in West Bank raid still on the loose

2 soldiers wounded during overnight clashes likely hit by friendly fire; IDF chief says raids prevented ‘significant terror attacks’ within Israel

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Burning tires block the entrance of the Palestinian village of Burqin, west of Jenin, in the West Bank, following exchanges of gunfire during an arrest raid by Israeli forces, on September 26, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
Burning tires block the entrance of the Palestinian village of Burqin, west of Jenin, in the West Bank, following exchanges of gunfire during an arrest raid by Israeli forces, on September 26, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

Members of a Hamas cell that was targeted in a series of raids on Sunday night and Monday morning are likely still on the loose, though the Israel Defense Forces believes it largely prevented the group’s activities, according to military assessments.

“This is a significant achievement, a night of a series of preemptive raids of the utmost importance that prevented — from our understanding — significant terror attacks. Such attacks could have been carried out in Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Afula or anywhere else,” IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said on Sunday afternoon, speaking from the Israel Defense Forces’ Menashe Regional Brigade headquarters in the northern West Bank, following a situational assessment.

Israeli security forces on Sunday were reviewing the results of its overnight raids, in which at least five Palestinians were killed, four of them known members of terror groups, and two Israel Defense Forces soldiers were seriously injured.

The fifth Palestinian fatality was believed to have been involved in a riot that broke out in the town of Burqin, near Jenin, following an arrest there.

The IDF was also investigating the circumstances in which the two soldiers were seriously injured and increasingly believes that they were hit by friendly fire after a Palestinian gunman opened fire at them in Burqin.

“There are things to investigate and things to learn, as is the case after every operational activity, but one thing is clear: There was engagement with the enemy and there was an operational outcome, which was the serious foiling of this network, which operated in the Menashe and Binyamin regions,” Kohavi said, referring to areas of the northern and central West Bank, respectively.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi meets with top officers from the Central Command in the northern West Bank on September 26, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli raids — a joint operation by the IDF, Shin Bet security service, Israel Police and Border Police — were directed against a Hamas cell operating in the West Bank.

According to the IDF, at least seven suspected members of the Hamas cell were arrested and at least five other suspected terrorists were killed after they opened fire at IDF troops during the arrest raids. Five guns were also confiscated in the overnight raids, along with large amounts of ammunition. Several other members of the group were arrested in the preceding nights. In total, some 20 suspected members of the cell have been picked up in recent days.

One of the guns used by a Palestinian suspect against IDF troops during an arrest raid in the northern West Bank town of Burqin on September 26, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Though the military believes it struck a serious blow to the cell’s plans and ability to act, it does not yet know if it has fully removed the threat posed by it.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that the Hamas cell was planning to carry out terror attacks imminently.

“Security forces acted tonight in Judea and Samaria against Hamas terrorists who were poised to carry out terror attacks in the immediate future,” Bennett said in a statement, en route to New York to speak at the United Nations General Assembly, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

The IDF refused to comment more specifically on what the alleged Hamas cell was suspected of planning to do, but said that most of the members were arrested with weapons in their possession and that some of them had opened fire at Israeli troops during the raids. Kohavi indicated that the cell planned to carry out the attacks within Israel proper, not only within the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the IDF for the deaths of the terrorist operatives during the firefights, deeming the incidents “ugly crimes.”

“These crimes are the continuation of an ongoing series of violations and summary executions of our people. Should this policy continue, it will cause the situation to explode,” Abbas’s office said in a statement carried by official PA media.

Meanwhile, Hamas blamed the PA for the death of its members, saying that the operation was a consequence of joint efforts by Israel and PA security forces to crack down on terror activity in the West Bank.

“The death of today’s martyrs is the consequence of ongoing security coordination with the Zionist occupation. It is the fruit of normalization meetings that PA leaders held with Zionist ministers and Knesset members in Ramallah,” said Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou, referring to a recent sit-down between some PA officials and retired Israeli parliamentarians last week.

The overnight operations began late Saturday, with an undercover arrest raid in the flashpoint West Bank city of Jenin before midnight, in which troops from the IDF’s Duvdevan counter-terrorism unit arrested one of the armed members, without resistance, the military said.

Additional arrests were also carried out without incident in Kafr Dan and Qabatiya, both outside Jenin, which has seen regular clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in recent weeks.

In Bidu, near Ramallah, the Israel Police’s Yamam counter-terrorism unit conducted an arrest raid against members of the cell in the early hours of Sunday morning. During the operation, gunmen opened fire at the arresting officers. “The troops returned fire and neutralized the terrorists who fired at them from close range,” the military said. At least three Hamas operatives were killed in the exchange, according to the IDF.

The three were later identified by Hamas as Ahmad Zahran, Mahmoud Hameedan, and Zakria Badwan — all members of the group.

“In addition, the troops arrested another terrorist who opened fire at them from a passing car,” the military said.

Mourners carry the body of Osama Subh, a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad killed by Israeli soldiers during a gun battle near Jenin, during his funeral in the village of Burqin in the northern West Bank, on September 26, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

Later on in the predawn hours of Sunday, soldiers from the Duvdevan unit conducted the arrest raid in Burqin.

According to the IDF’s initial investigation, as the soldiers approached the house in which the suspect was hiding out, the Hamas operative opened fire at them from close range from the yard of the home. When the troops shot back, two members of the unit — a company commander and his radioman — were injured. The suspect was wounded and taken into custody.

Though the investigation into their injuries was ongoing, the military increasingly believes that the troops were hit by friendly fire.

The two soldiers were transported by helicopter to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center for treatment. The head of the hospital’s trauma unit said the two were in serious, unstable condition and had already undergone a number of surgeries, but that there was no direct threat to their lives from their “still severe and complicated injuries.”

Following the initial exchange in Burqin, another gun battle broke out between Palestinian gunmen and troops from Duvdevan and a police counter-terror unit. At least one of the gunmen — Osama Subh, who was later claimed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group as a member — was killed in that exchange, the IDF said.

Afterward, rioting broke out in the Jenin suburb, with residents throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the Israeli troops. Israeli security forces responded with riot dispersal weapons and live fire. According to Palestinian media, a 16-year-old Palestinian, Yousef Muhammad Subh, was killed in the clashes.

It was not immediately clear how Subh became involved in the clashes as the arrest raids were directed against a Hamas — not an Islamic Jihad — cell.

IDF Spokesperson Ran Kochav said that the military believed Hamas and Islamic Jihad may retaliate for the deaths and arrests of its members with rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Earlier this month, the Islamic Jihad launched such an attack in solidarity with its members who escaped Israeli prison and were subsequently captured by Israeli security forces.

Hamas praised the gunmen who were killed, vowing that “the blood of the martyrs of Jerusalem and Jenin at dawn today will continue to fuel our people’s revolution against the Zionist occupier.”

Israel conducts arrest raids in the West Bank on a nightly basis — and has continued to do so against the same Hamas cell in recent days — but they typically do not result in exchanges of gunfire, though rock throwing and Molotov cocktail attacks against Israeli vehicles are relatively common.

Recent months have seen a spike in violence in the West Bank, however, with more frequent gunfire exchanges between Israeli troops and Palestinians, as well as attacks by Palestinian assailants on Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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