HEBRON: Israeli forces traded gunfire with Palestinians yesterday, the military said, in the fiercest street battles in the occupied West Bank since a search began for three Israeli teenagers missing for a week.
Hospital officials said three Palestinians suffered bullet wounds in the overnight clashes in Jenin, a militant stronghold. There were no reported Israeli casualties.
A military statement said about 300 Palestinians, including some who “hurled explosives and opened fire”, confronted soldiers who entered Jenin looking for the three seminary students.
Israel says the Hamas Islamist group abducted them last Thursday as they were hitchhiking near a Jewish settlement.
“The soldiers responded with live fire, identifying hits,” the statement said. It said 30 “terror suspects” were detained in the West Bank, bringing to 280 the number of Palestinians taken into custody over the past week.
Photographers in Jenin heard heavy gunfire during the night but were kept away from the scene of the clashes by Israeli forces.
Israel has said its West Bank operation is two-fold: to find Gil-Ad Shaer and US-Israeli national Naftali Fraenkel, both aged 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, and to deal a substantial blow to Hamas, a group dedicated to its destruction.
A statement issued by the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of using the teenagers’ disappearance as “a pretext to impose tough punishment against our people and besiege them” in violation of international humanitarian law.
Israeli raids have spread from house-to-house searches in Hebron, a flashpoint town in the area where the three went missing, to raids across the West Bank of institutions believed to provide funding and other support for Hamas.
“The policy of collective punishment conducted by the occupation government against our people and our land requires condemnation by the whole world,” the Palestinian presidential statement said.
While military operations inside Hebron continued, the heavy troop presence around the city appeared to have been scaled back. Some roadblocks at entrances to the city were left unmanned, allowing vehicles to enter and leave freely. Paratrooper platoons that had camped by a road nearby were gone.
“We know more today than we did a few days ago, but we still have a way to go,” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said at a West Bank military headquarters, near the site where the teens are believed to have been abducted.
As part of the crackdown, Israel yesterday said it was banning the British-based charity Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) from operating in the occupied West Bank. It accuses the IRW of being a funding source for the Hamas Islamist movement.
At Bir Zeit University, near the Palestinian town of Ramallah, Israeli soldiers yesterday seized Hamas posters and flags from a student group affiliated with Hamas.
Soldiers have searched about 900 locations so far, the military said. There has been no word from the missing teenagers nor any public claim of responsibility or ransom demands.
Hamas, however, has not issued any denial of involvement and yesterday appeared to praise the apparent abduction.
“Regardless of who was responsible for the operation ... the Palestinian people have the right to use all forms of resistance in order to liberate land and people,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a news conference in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas’s armed wing in Gaza said at least six members of its group were killed in the collapse of a tunnel the group had dug close to the border with Israel to infiltrate the Jewish state.
Security experts expect the frustration of ordinary Palestinians at Israeli restrictions in the West Bank to mount as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan is due to begin on June 28 or 29.