IDF: Palestinian gunmen ‘fortified’ Jenin mosque, dug tunnel underneath

Military releases footage of house of worship turned into outpost and weapons cache for members of terror groups, amid major operation in northern West Bank city

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

An entrance to an underground storage site for alleged weapons and explosives in a mosque in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, July 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
An entrance to an underground storage site for alleged weapons and explosives in a mosque in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, July 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday accused Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Jenin of turning a mosque into a “fortified” hideout, complete with an underground tunnel and a cache of weapons.

Israeli forces gained control of the al-Ansari mosque on Monday afternoon, following a shootout with Palestinian gunmen in the area, during the course of a major counterterrorism operation against the Jenin refugee camp.

The IDF said it carried out a drone strike against the armed Palestinians outside the mosque and later managed to break in.

On the ground floor, troops found two tunnel openings that the army said were connected. Explosives, weapons, and other military equipment were found inside the holes and scattered across the mosque.

“All of this excavation work in the mosque has turned it into a fortified site,” said Lt. Col. “Mem,” the commander of the elite Egoz unit, who can only be identified by his rank and initial of his first name in Hebrew.

Footage released by the army showed dozens of sandbags and stones piled up across the ground floor of the mosque.

Mem said the fortification of the mosque and the tunnel digging likely took the gunmen a long time to carry out.

The equipment was seized, the weapons were destroyed, and the tunnel was rendered inoperable, the IDF said.

The military’s operation in Jenin was set to continue Tuesday following a mostly uneventful night that saw Palestinian gunmen choosing not to fight Israeli forces, potentially signaling an approaching end to the campaign, now in its second day.

Israel launched the major operation early Monday to crack down on what it says is a hotbed of terror in the city. A number of attacks on Israelis in recent years have been carried out by Palestinians from the area, and observers say the Palestinian Authority has little control on the ground.

The IDF’s operation has focused on a local wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group known as the Jenin Battalion, as well as other smaller armed groups in the city and refugee camp.

Palestinian terror groups’ command and control centers discovered by the IDF in Jenin, on July 4, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

Over 1,000 IDF troops were involved in the campaign, which appeared to be the largest in the West Bank in some 20 years.

Palestinian health officials said Tuesday morning that ten people were killed and at least 100 others were wounded, including 20 listed in serious condition, during Israeli airstrikes and in clashes with Israeli forces the previous day.

All of the slain Palestinians were involved in the fighting, but there were some noncombatants among the wounded, according to the IDF.

The IDF said that since the early hours of Monday, troops had questioned over 120 Palestinian suspects. Some were released, while others were taken in for additional questioning.

The IDF believes there were some 300 Palestinian gunmen in the Jenin refugee camp. IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the military had intelligence on the identities of at least 160 armed Palestinians.

Some 3,000 Palestinians streamed out of the Jenin refugee camp on Monday night to escape the fighting, although the IDF said it had not ordered an evacuation and that there was no closure on Jenin.

Residents of the Jenin refugee camp evacuate their homes as the Israeli military pressed ahead with an operation in the area, in the West Bank Monday, July 3, 2023. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

The military operation began shortly after 1 a.m. on Monday with a series of airstrikes against multiple targets in the city, including a joint war room shared by various armed groups in the city.

Throughout the campaign, the IDF said, troops located and demolished weapon storage sites, explosives labs with hundreds of primed devices, war rooms used by Palestinian gunmen to observe Israeli forces, and other “terror infrastructure.”

Troops also clashed with armed Palestinians and carried out some 20 drone strikes against various targets in the refugee camp.

Explosives located by Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Jenin, July 3, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Internally, the military has referred to the operation by name, calling it “Bayit Vegan,” literally Home and Garden, a reference to Jenin’s biblical name, and the term has been used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well. But the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit has insisted that the operation has no official name.

The military appeared to be downplaying the scale of the campaign by not giving it a name. Hagari, the spokesman, has called it a “brigade-level raid.”

For weeks, there was speculation about a major Israeli military operation in the West Bank, following a string of shooting attacks and intense resistance to IDF raids in Palestinian cities.

The northern West Bank, and especially the city of Jenin and its environs, has long been considered by the IDF as a hotbed of terrorism, highlighted by a string of attacks in early 2022, many of which were carried out by residents of the area.

Smoke rises during an Israeli military raid of Jenin in the West Bank, July 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

According to the IDF, since last year, some 50 shooting attacks were carried out by residents of the area, and 19 wanted Palestinians escaped to Jenin to seek refuge there from Israeli forces.

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have been high across the West Bank for the past year and a half, with the military carrying out near-nightly raids, amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.

Since the beginning of this year, Palestinian attacks in Israel and the West Bank have killed 24 people.

According to a tally by The Times of Israel, 144 West Bank Palestinians have been killed during that time — most of them during clashes with security forces or while carrying out attacks, but some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under unclear circumstances.

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