Israeli security forces operating in the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday killed three Palestinian gunmen allegedly responsible for recent shooting attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians, Israeli defense officials announced.
“A terrorist cell from the Nablus area was eliminated. The cell is responsible for a series of shooting attacks in the area against the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli civilians in recent weeks,” the Shin Bet security service and the Border Police said in a joint statement.
Israeli troops rarely conduct such operations in broad daylight inside major Palestinian cities. Even more unusually, the dead gunmen belonged to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a coalition of armed groups associated with the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party.
In a statement widely circulated in Palestinian media, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades vowed revenge for its members’ deaths. The Times of Israel could not independently confirm the statement’s authenticity.
“The blood of [our] martyrs will not be wasted, and the response will come, God willing, and blood will be met with blood,” the terror group said in a statement.
Recent weeks have seen a spate of shooting attacks directed toward Israeli security forces and military positions in the northern West Bank, most recently on Saturday evening when shots were fired at a Border Police vehicle near Jenin. At least five such shooting attacks have been carried out in the past two weeks, none of which have caused Israeli injuries.
An Israeli security official said the Palestinian suspects were on their way to commit another attack, necessitating their intervention.
“They were a ticking bomb,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with departmental regulations. Designating a suspect an imminent threat gives security services legal leeway to use more force than they would otherwise be permitted to use.
The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry confirmed that three Palestinians had been killed by Israeli soldiers in Nablus’s al-Makhfiya neighborhood. Palestinian media described the operation as an “assassination,” saying that Israeli forces had opened fire on the three men’s car.
Officers of the Yamam police counterterrorism unit ambushed the three Palestinians as they drove through Nablus. According to a police spokesperson, the officers saw the suspects preparing to shoot at them and fired, killing all three. Two M-16 rifles were found in their possession and were confiscated, according to police.
Palestinian media reports identified the gunmen as Ashraf al-Mubsalit, Adham Mabrouk and Muhammad al-Dakhil and said they were affiliated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. A Fatah spokesperson confirmed that the three Palestinians were Fatah members.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a loose coalition of armed groups affiliated with Fatah, has been largely dormant since the Second Intifada two decades ago. In a 2007 agreement, hundreds of the terror group’s members surrendered their arms in exchange for amnesty from Israel.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz praised Israeli security forces for the operation, which he called “a preventive action.”
“I recently ordered that preventive actions against shooting attacks and troop presence in central arteries and areas of the [West Bank] be stepped up,” he wrote on Twitter. “We’ll continue with proactive operations, prevent [attacks] and capture anyone who tries to hurt people.”
The Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry condemned the shooting death of the Palestinian terror suspects at the hands of Israeli forces “in the most severe terms,” saying they were “executed.”
“This crime is the latest in a chain of extrajudicial executions committed by the forces of the occupation,” the Foreign Ministry said.
The Hamas terror group called for mass participation in the funeral of the three Palestinians.
“Let it be a march that infuriates the enemy, and sends a message that we are the righteous ones, and that resistance is our path to restore the rights that have been taken from us,” Hamas said in a statement.
The Palestinian Authority cabinet called for an international investigation of the operation, which it called “a heinous crime.” Separately, Nablus Governor Ibrahim Ramadan called for a general strike on Wednesday across the governorate to mourn the three Palestinians.
Though the number of successful attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians has been relatively low, recent months have seen a rise in tensions in the West Bank.
In early December, Palestinian terrorists affiliated with Islamic Jihad shot and killed an Israeli civilian, Yehuda Dimentman, near the Homesh outpost in the northern West Bank. Israeli forces later arrested several suspects in the attack.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.