An Israeli drone killed three militant gunmen in the West Bank on Wednesday, in a rare strike that came hours after settlers attacked Palestinian towns, torching cars and buildings in retaliation for an attack by Hamas gunmen a day earlier.
The strike near the flashpoint city of Jenin came amid a surge in violence over recent days in the occupied West Bank, where for over a year the military has been conducting regular sweeps leading to repeated clashes with Palestinian fighters.
The Israeli military (IDF) said a squad of militants was identified in a vehicle after they carried out a shooting attack near the town of Jalamah.
A statement by the Islamic Jihad militant group said two of the men were Islamic Jihad fighters while the third was from the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades armed wing of the Fatah movement.
Although surveillance drones are commonplace, the strike by an Elbit Hermes drone, which followed a rare use of helicopter gunships in the operation in Jenin, was the first by the Israeli military in the West Bank since 2006, the IDF said.
“This is about removing a threat – we identified a vehicle shooting at the crossing and removed the threat,” IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a tweet.
Hours earlier, Israeli settlers rampaged through Palestinian towns in the West Bank in retaliation for the killing of four Israelis by Hamas gunmen who opened fire on a roadside restaurant near the settlement of Eli.
In Turmus Ayya, a prosperous town near Ramallah, footage showed cars ablaze with thick clouds of black smoke swirling above and people carrying an injured person to an ambulance.
“They tried to enter the courtyard, they set the cars on fire, they started shooting towards the house using live bullets and stones and they broke the balconies,” said resident Noman Shalab.
The IDF said troops had entered Turmus Ayya to put out fires and prevent clashes and it said the Israeli civilians had left the town.
“We will not accept any provocations to the police or the security forces in these places or anywhere else,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
One Palestinian was shot dead during the attack while at least one other was critically injured, Palestinian health officials said.
Residents of a number of other Palestinian towns reported settler attacks after the killings and senior ministers in Netanyahu’s government called for a full-scale military operation across the West Bank.
Yaqoub Oweis, chairman of the village council of Al-Lubban Al-Sharqeya near Ramallah, said Israeli soldiers and police stood by as a large group of settlers burned a petrol station, orchards, a cement factory and dozens of cars.
“The attack was unprecedented and abnormal,” he said. “There was heavy gunfire but we couldn’t distinguish whether it came from settlers or the soldiers because of the darkness.”
‘WE NEED TO FLATTEN BUILDINGS’
The U.S. condemned the settler violence and called “for Israeli authorities to immediately stop the violence, protect U.S. and Palestinian civilians, and prosecute those responsible.”
Both Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic relations with Israel, condemned the attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned all acts of violence against civilians, “including acts of terror,” deputy U.N. spokesperson Farhan Haq said in a statement.
“It is crucial to reduce tensions and to prevent further escalation. Israel, as the Occupying Power, must ensure that the civilian population is protected against all acts of violence, and that perpetrators are held to account,” Haq said.
Even as the settler attacks took place, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, from one of the hard-right parties in Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition, led calls for tougher action against Palestinian militants.
“We need a military operation, we need to flatten buildings, we need targeted killings,” he told parliament on Wednesday. “That’s how you act against terrorism.”
Some other ministers played down the demand for additional measures. “There’s no need for any new decisions, only adaptation of existing ones,” Energy Minister Israel Katz, a member of the government Security Cabinet, told Army Radio.
Netanyahu’s office said Israel planned to add 1,000 new homes to the Eli settlement, defying international calls for a halt to new settlement projects.
Palestinians have complained repeatedly of attacks by settlers in the West Bank, an issue that has also drawn mounting international concern.
There has been no sign of any new effort to find a political solution, however. U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, aimed at establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, collapsed in 2014.
Netanyahu’s government includes members who rule out a Palestinian state while Hamas, which advocates armed resistance against Israel, has been steadily expanding its operations in the West Bank.
Monday’s military arrest raid in Jenin, the apparent trigger for the killing of the four Israelis, touched off hours of fighting with heavily armed Palestinian militants. Seven Palestinians died, more than 90 were wounded and seven Israeli personnel were wounded.
So far this year, 174 Palestinians, most of them militants but several of them civilians, have been killed by Israeli forces. At the same time, 24 Israelis and one foreigner have been killed in attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank, around Jerusalem and in some Israeli cities.
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