Israeli troops kill seven gunmen, two civilians in Jenin clash, Palestinians say
JENIN, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli commandos killed seven gunmen and two civilians in a raid on a flashpoint town in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, Palestinian officials said, stirring fear of further flare-ups after the largest single death toll in years of fighting.
U.N. and Arab mediators said they were in talks with Israel and Palestinian factions in hope of heading off escalation after the clash in Jenin, among areas of the northern West Bank that have seen intensified Israeli operations in the last year.
The Israeli military said it sent special forces into Jenin to detain members of the Islamic Jihad armed group suspected of having carried out and planning "multiple major terror attacks", shooting several of them after they opened fire.
Islamic Jihad said two of its men died battling the unusually deep raid on Jenin's refugee camp, a militant bastion. Four slain gunmen were claimed by Hamas, another by an armed wing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction.
The two other dead were a civilian man and woman, local residents said.
A spokesperson for Abbas, whose U.S.-sponsored talks with Israel on Palestinian statehood stalled in 2014, condemned the Jenin killings as a "massacre .. conducted amid suspicious international silence".
During the three-hour clash, gunfire echoed through the camp's cramped alleys, as well as occasional explosions from improvised bombs set off by militants. Youths pelted army vehicles with rocks. There were no Israeli casualties.
After the troops withdrew and the smoke and tear gas cleared, civilians who had kept away streamed into the camp to check on casualties. A two-storey building that had been the focus of the fighting was left with heavy damage.
Violence has surged since a series of lethal Palestinian street attacks in Israel in March and April. The attendant diplomatic stalemate has helped rally Palestinian support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which refuse coexistence with Israel - where the new hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu includes members opposed to Palestinian statehood.
An Islamic Jihad official told Reuters the group had told international mediators to warn Israel that the Jenin violence "could spread everywhere". Deputy Hamas chief Saleh Al-Arouri said in a statement that an armed response "will not take long".
Tor Wennesland, a U.N. mediator, said on Twitter that he was "actively engaged with Israeli and Palestinian authorities to de-escalate tensions, restore calm and avoid further conflict".
Israeli officials gave no public indication they were in truce talks. Lauding Israeli forces on the Jenin raid, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said: "Any terrorist who tries to harm our personnel should know that his blood is forfeit."
According the Palestinian health ministry, at least 29 Palestinians, including gunmen and civilians, have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank since Jan. 1.
(Writing by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Christina Fincher and Toby Chopra)