IDF probing if soldier killed by so-called 'friendly fire'

Soldier killed as major Jenin operation winds down, all troops leave West Bank city

Sgt. First Class David Yehuda Yitzhak shot as troops begin pulling out, declared dead at hospital in Israel; forces strike gunmen waiting on outskirts

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

Smoke rises during an Israeli military raid of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, July 4, 2023.; Inset: Sgt. First Class David Yehuda Yitzhak, killed during the operation. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed; Israel Defense Forces)
Smoke rises during an Israeli military raid of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, July 4, 2023.; Inset: Sgt. First Class David Yehuda Yitzhak, killed during the operation. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed; Israel Defense Forces)

An Israeli soldier was killed after being shot in the West Bank city of Jenin on Tuesday evening, as Israeli forces began to withdraw from the area, nearly two days into a major operation.

The Israel Defense Forces said the soldier, named Wednesday as Sgt. First Class David Yehuda Yitzhak from the elite Egoz commando unit, was treated at the scene, before being taken to a hospital in Israel, where he was declared dead.

IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the non-commissioned officer was shot while securing the beginning of the military’s withdrawal from Jenin, in a tight alleyway in the refugee camp.

He said the army was investigating if the NCO was hit by so-called “friendly fire” by other Israeli forces in the area, but could not immediately rule out the possibility that he may have been hit by Palestinian gunfire.

Yitzhak, 23, from the West Bank settlement of Beit El, was to be buried at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on Wednesday afternoon.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement that his “heart and thoughts” were with Yitzhak’s family.

There were other sporadic clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops as the latter slowly left the West Bank city later on Tuesday night. The withdrawal was completed during the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday.

Hagari said troops would remain on alert in the area regardless, “in order to be prepared for whatever is required.”

An Israeli armored vehicle is stationed at the end of a blocked-off street during an ongoing military operation in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank on July 4, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

Just after midnight, residents in the Jenin refugee camp said the army had left the area, and people began returning to the streets.

Returning residents described finding devastation, with roads torn up and buildings reduced to rubble.

As the pullout was getting underway, the IDF said it carried out an airstrike against Palestinian gunmen stationed at a cemetery on the outskirts of Jenin, who “posed a threat to security forces as they left the refugee camp.”

Palestinian media outlets reported several casualties in the strike. Their conditions were not immediately known.

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 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 health officials said 12 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.

Hagari said at least 18 Palestinian gunmen had been killed by Israeli forces.

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

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

The IDF denied blocking ambulances or emergency crews

The army said that since the early hours of Monday, troops had questioned over 300 Palestinian suspects, though only 30 of them were taken in for additional questioning.

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 at least eight weapon storage sites, six explosives labs with hundreds of primed devices, three war rooms used by Palestinian gunmen to observe Israeli forces, and other “terror infrastructure.” The IDF said it had also seized 24 assault rifles, 8 handguns and dozens of bullets.

Troops also carried out some 20 drone strikes against various targets in the refugee camp.

Rubble on the streets of the West Bank city of Jenin, following a major Israeli offensive, July 4, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Internally, the military has referred to the operation by name, calling it “Bayit Vagan,” literally Home and Garden, a reference to Jenin’s biblical name, and the term has been used by 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. IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari 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.

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, 147 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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