Army warns deaths, arrests may prompt Gaza rocket fire

IDF: At least 4 terrorists killed in predawn clashes; 2 soldiers seriously hurt

Military says battles occurred during large-scale West Bank arrest raid against armed terror cell that PM says planned imminent attacks; IDF probing if troops hurt by friendly fire

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

Illustrative: IDF soldiers search for the perpetrators of the terror attack that killed Rabbi Raziel Shevach in the northern West Bank village of Burqin, on February 4, 2017. (IDF spokesperson)
Illustrative: IDF soldiers search in the northern West Bank village of Burqin, on February 4, 2017. (IDF spokesperson)

Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire in at least four towns in the West Bank in the predawn hours of Sunday morning during a series of large raids to capture the members of a Hamas cell, the Israel Defense Forces said.

According to the IDF, at least four terrorist operatives were killed in the gun battles, but possibly more. The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry reported five Palestinian casualties from the clashes in Biddu, near Jerusalem, and outside Jenin.

An IDF officer and a soldier were seriously injured during the shoot-outs outside Jenin, the military said. The information about the Israeli casualties was initially barred from publication by the military censor until the service members’ families could be notified.

The two soldiers, members of the Duvdevan counter-terrorism unit, were transported by helicopter to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center for treatment. The head of the hospital’s trauma unit said that 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.”

It was not immediately clear who fired the shots that injured the two men. The military said that the matter — including the possibility that they were hit by so-called friendly fire — was being investigated.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad said that at least one of the terrorist operatives killed overnight was a member of the terror group. The others were said to be members of Hamas.

Palestinians gather at the site where three Palestinians, said by the IDF to be terrorists, were killed in a gun battle with Israeli forces in the village of Beit Anan, September 26, 2021 (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

The arrest raids were conducted throughout the West Bank, primarily by the military’s elite Duvdevan counter-terrorism unit and by the Israel Police and Border Police counter-terrorism units, along with the Shin Bet security service.

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.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett departs for the US, on September 26, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

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.

“The IDF, along with the Shin Bet and Border Police special forces, took action last night against a terror cell belonging to the Hamas organization and prevented it from carrying out terror attacks,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a statement.

“We will continue to act against terrorism in any place where it raises its head, on any front, in order to ensure the security of Israeli citizens,” he added.

IDF Spokesperson Ran Kochav said that the military believed Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad may retaliate to the deaths and arrests of its members with rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. Earlier this month, the Islamic Jihad did the same 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.”

A Palestinian demonstrator burns tires at the entrance of the village of Burqin in the West Bank, on September 26, 2021. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

The terror group slammed its Palestinian Authority rivals as well as Israel, claiming that the PA’s policy of coordinating with Israel to crack down on Palestinian terror groups in the West Bank had led to the raid.

“The death of today’s martyrs is the consequence of ongoing security coordination with the Zionist occupation. It is the fruit of normalization meetings which 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.

The overnight operation began late Saturday night with an undercover raid in the flashpoint West Bank city of Jenin, in which Duvdevan troops arrested one of the armed members, without resistance.

Shortly after midnight, Duvdevan conducted another raid in Kafr Dan, north of Jenin. Then too, the soldiers captured an armed suspect without an exchange of fire.

In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, Duvdevan soldiers entered the village of Burqin near Jenin to arrest another armed suspect there.

Palestinian media reported that the gunfire broke out after Israeli troops surrounded the home in which the suspect was hiding and called for him to exit.

According to Kochav, the armed terrorist was wounded in the gun battle with Israeli troops and captured, along with his weapon.

Nearby in Burqin there was a second gun battle between Palestinian gunmen and troops from Duvdevan and counter-terror unit from the Israel Police. At least one of the gunmen was killed in that exchange, Kochav said.

He was later identified in Palestinian media as Osama Sobah, 22. Islamic Jihad later identified him as a member of the terrorist organization.

Also in the Jenin area, troops from the Border Police’s counter-terrorism unit arrested a fourth armed suspect in the town of Qabatiya without resistance, the IDF spokesman said.

Finally, during a raid by the Israel Police’s Yamam counter-terrorism unit in the villages of Bidu and Beit Anan near Ramallah as part of the operation, at least three Hamas members were killed after they opened fire at the Israeli troops, according to Kochav.

No Israeli soldiers were injured in that exchange, he said.

One of those killed was identified as Ahmad Zahran.

Though Israel conducts arrest raids in the West Bank on a nightly basis, these 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, with more frequent gunfire exchanges between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants, as well as attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report. 

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