Israelis, Palestinians on edge even as risk of flare-up ebbs
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis and Palestinians braced for new violence Friday with tensions high following the deadliest Israeli raid in over two decades, even as the likelihood of a major escalation in the conflict appeared to ebb.
The raid in the flashpoint Jenin refugee camp descended into a gun battle Thursday that killed at least nine Palestinians, while clashes elsewhere left another dead. Gaza militants then fired rockets and Israel carried out airstrikes overnight — but the exchange was limited, following a familiar pattern that allows both sides to respond without leading to a major flare-up.
Israel’s defense minister, meanwhile, instructed to the military to prepare for new strikes in the Gaza Strip “if necessary” — also appearing to leave open the possibility that the violence would subside.
Nevertheless, the flare-up posed an early test for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government and drew “deep concern” from the State Department ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected trip to the region next week. The raid also prompted the Palestinian Authority to halt security coordination with Israel.
While residents of Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank remained on edge Friday, midday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, often a catalyst for clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police, passed in relative calm.
At the funeral of a 22-year-old killed in clashes sparked by the initial raid, crowds of Palestinians carried the young man’s body aloft and waved the flags of both Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority, and militant Hamas, which rules Gaza. In the streets of the town called al-Ram, masked Palestinians threw stones and set off fireworks at Israeli police, who responded with tear gas.
But so far, both the Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes seemed limited so as to prevent escalation into a full-blown war. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes since the militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
The Palestinians’ rockets were fired toward the south of Israel, while Israel’s nonlethal airstrikes were on targets in Gaza, such as training camps and an underground rocket-manufacturing site.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant claimed the military dealt a “tough blow” to Palestinian militants in Gaza and said the army was preparing to strike “high-quality targets … until peace is restored to the citizens of Israel.”
On Friday, Israeli police were out in force in Jerusalem, as scores of Muslim worshippers gathered for prayers in the stone courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and chanted in solidarity with those killed in the Jenin raid.
Tensions at the holy site, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, have triggered violence in the past, including a bloody Gaza war in 2021. The site is considered the third-most sacred in Islam and the holiest place in Judaism.
“In spirit and blood, we will sacrifice you,” Muslim worshippers shouted. “Greetings Jenin, Greetings Gaza.”
Eyad Shaher, a 45-year-old construction worker from Bethlehem who prays weekly at Al-Aqsa, said he was relieved to have a peaceful morning.
“Thank God it was good and there were no problems after that cursed day,” he said, referring to Thursday’s events.
Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks. Jenin, which was an important a militant stronghold during the 2000-2005 intifada and has again emerged as one, has been the focus of many of the Israeli operations. Among the dead in Thursday’s raid were seven militants and a 61-year-old woman.
Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to leading Israeli rights group B’Tselem. Last year, 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed, according to a count by The Associated Press.
Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations also have been killed.
Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomat in the United Arab Emirates, warned Friday that “the Israeli escalation in Jenin is dangerous and disturbing and undermines international efforts to advance the priority of the peace agenda.” The UAE recognized Israel in 2020 along with Bahrain, which has remained silent on the surge in violence.
News of the nine killed in Jenin and the overnight rockets blared from phones and radios in Jerusalem’s Old City on Friday as young Palestinians milled around and women hawked raisins.
Ibrahim Salameh, a 21-year-old smoking on the steps of Damascus Gate, said he had never been so scared. On Wednesday, he said, his teenage neighbor was killed as police entered the Shuafat refugee camp to demolish an attacker’s home.
“Every day there’s more and more fear, more tension,” he said. “Somehow I’m living with this idea that at any moment I could be shot dead.”
In the West Bank, Fatah announced a general strike and most shops were closed in Palestinian cities. The PA declared Thursday that it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship, and also due to U.S. and Israeli pressure.
The PA has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp.
Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want those territories to form any eventual state.
Israel has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that now house 500,000 people. The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for over a decade.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.