JENIN, West Bank (AP) — Israeli troops killed three Palestinians in an early morning raid that was followed by a clash with angry protesters in a West Bank town on Saturday, the military and Palestinian security officials said, in the deadliest incident in months.
The violence came amid a recent spike in clashes in the West Bank that could complicate the already troubled peace efforts as the sides near an April deadline set under U.S.-sponsored talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' office condemned the violence, calling it "part of an Israeli policy that aims to destroy everything," and asked the American administration to intervene to save the peace talks.
Saturday's incident started with an Israeli raid, which the military said aimed to arrest Hamza Abu el-Heija, a 22-year-old Hamas operative wanted for involvement in shooting and bombing attacks against Israelis.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner described el-Heija as a "ticking bomb" and said he was wanted for months and was allegedly in the final stages of planning a major shooting attack against Israelis.
Palestinians officials said the military ringed the house in the Jenin refugee camp overnight and ordered el-Heija outside. When he refused to come out, the soldiers stormed the building and a shootout ensued.
Lerner said everyone but el-Heija had left the building before the shootout. The military says el-Heija first shot an attack dog that was sent inside and then opened fire on the troops outside, wounding two soldiers. When he attempted to escape while still shooting at the Israelis, the troops returned fire and killed him, Lerner said.
Within minutes, hundreds of angry residents and gunmen gathered and attacked the soldiers. The troops opened fire and killed two Palestinians and wounded several more, he said. The military initially said three Palestinians were killed in the shootout but later corrected and revised the number.
El-Heija was the son of Hamas leader Jamal el-Heija, one of the longest serving prisoners being held in Israel. From his prison cell, the father praised his son's "heroism" and "blessed his confrontation with occupation forces until his last bullet," adding that he prayed in prison for his martyrdom.
The three main Palestinian militant groups, linked to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Abbas' Fatah, issued a joint statement warning of retribution against Israel and the Palestinian leadership for allegedly cooperating with it.
"The resistance in the West Bank is alive and won't die, and the Zionist enemy can't guess from where the resistance will attack. The blood of Jenin Martyrs won't go in vain," the groups said.