Ramallah, occupied West Bank – At least 150 Israeli soldiers in dozens of armoured vehicles swooped on Nablus on Wednesday in what turned out to be one of the deadliest military raids in the occupied West Bank since the mass Palestinian uprising or Intifada of 2000-05.
Within four hours, the Israeli army killed 11 Palestinians and injured more than 80 people with live ammunition – some of them critically. The raid comes barely a month after 10 Palestinians were killed in a similar raid in the Jenin refugee camp about 41km (25 miles) away.
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Jenin and Nablus, which have emerged as the centres of limited armed Palestinian resistance, have become the scenes of increased deadly Israeli attacks.
Among the victims of Wednesday’s raids were three elderly men – aged 72, 66 and 61 – and a 16-year-old boy, while hundreds of others suffered tear gas inhalation.
“They were shooting left and right, at anyone – those who had and didn’t have weapons. I was standing 2 metres away from a guy, watching the events, and he was shot and injured right next to me,” Khaled Jamal, a 25-year-old resident, told Al Jazeera.
“It was catastrophic. Everyone inside and outside the hospital was crying at the scene before our eyes – men, women, children. Even the people who were at the hospitals for checkups were crying,” he continued.
Israeli undercover forces entered the Old City of Nablus on foot at dawn on Wednesday dressed as religious Muslim men and veiled women and hid inside a mosque in the al-Halabeh quarter next to a house where two Palestinian fighters were taking shelter.
The Israeli soldiers remained hidden inside the mosque until the morning, during which dozens of other soldiers took positions in and around the house and the neighbourhood, including snipers on rooftops, according to local residents.
The two fighters, Hossam Isleem, 24, and Mohammad Abdulghani (also known as Mohammad Jneidi), 23, who belonged to the Lions’ Den armed group in Nablus, refused to surrender. A few minutes later, Israeli forces attacked the house with rocket-propelled grenades and armed drones, killing the men, according to residents.
The Israeli army claims that Isleem, along with two other fighters in Israeli detention, Osama Taweel and Kamal Joury, was behind a shooting that killed an Israeli soldier near the illegal settlement of Shavei Shomron in October.
Akram Saeed Antar, a resident of the al-Halabeh area where the targeted house was located, said Israeli soldiers were firing indiscriminately.
“It was at least three hours of destruction, explosions, and live ammunition that targeted all the residents in the area,” Antar said. “They killed elderly people, children, on the streets.”
“The resistance fighters had basic rifles, they cannot resist shells, missiles, and drones,” continued Antar.
Amid the operation around the house, Israeli forces attacked large crowds of Palestinians in several busy locations across Nablus, with live ammunition and tear gas that contained pepper spray, including from drones, as widespread confrontations broke out with residents.
“They fired tear gas in an unimaginable way at women, men, elderly people, in every busy area in Nablus city where there were a lot of people. I went down with a group of youth to direct the people who have children, the families, into the main mall complex in the city centre – it was the safest place,” said Jamal, who also suffered tear gas inhalation.
“It wasn’t normal tear gas. It was mixed with pepper spray, so that you don’t only choke, you also can’t open your eyes at all. There were large groups of people just walking blind.”
Another witness, who preferred not to be named for fear of reprisal, said “it was a massacre”.
“Everyone was running, shouting on the streets. The army was dealing with people with barbarity – they were shooting at people on the streets, the stores, the food and merchandise carts in the market, they ruined produce,” he told Al Jazeera.
Series of deadly raids
The deadly raid on Nablus is the third major Israeli operation in the West Bank since the start of the year and under Israel’s new extreme right-wing government that was sworn in late December.
On January 26, Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians, including two children and a woman, in the Jenin refugee camp, in what was also described as a “massacre”. On February 6, the army killed five men and seriously wounded two others in the Aqabet Jaber refugee camp in Jericho city.
The large-scale operations come just after 2022 was declared by the United Nations as the deadliest for Palestinians since the end of the second Intifada in 2005.
While Israel claims that it is targeting limited Palestinian armed resistance in the northern West Bank, many civilians, including children, are often killed and injured during such raids and their properties are destroyed.
With 62 Palestinians, including 13 children, killed this year so far, and hundreds of others injured, the first two months of 2023 have been the deadliest compared with the same period since 2000.
The Palestinian health ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that the “start of this year is the bloodiest in the occupied West Bank since the year 2000, at least. In the past 22 years, we have not recorded this number of martyrs , in the first two months of a year”.
The near everyday killings in the West Bank that have persisted for more than a year, as well as other oppressive Israeli policies, including increasing demolitions of Palestinian homes and punitive measures on prisoners, are further making the situation on the ground explosive.
Thousands turned out for the funeral of the 11 people killed on Wednesday afternoon, with fervent chants against the Israeli occupation and honouring the fighters and civilians killed. Hundreds of fighters were present, with rifles in hand.
On Wednesday night, armed resistance groups in the besieged Gaza Strip fired rockets into Israel in response to the Nablus raid, prompting Israel to launch air raids on Gaza.
“The resistance in Gaza is observing the enemy’s escalating crimes against our people in the occupied West Bank, and its patience is running out,” said Abu Obeida, spokesperson for the Hamas movement.
The escalating violence has led to fears of a wider conflict, with some saying a third Intifada was inevitable.
Back in Nablus, residents will continue to reel from the aftermath of the deadly Israeli attack for time to come.
“It was horrible. I was just sitting there at the end of the day on the hospital floor with blood on me, crying with a group of young men,” said Jamal.
Additional reporting by Shadi Jarar’ah in Nablus city.