JENIN, West Bank – Israeli troops killed three Palestinians in an early morning raid that was followed by a clash with angry protesters in a West Bank town on Saturday, the military and Palestinian security officials said, in the deadliest incident in months.
The violence came amid a recent spike in clashes in the West Bank that could complicate the already troubled peace efforts as the sides near an April deadline set under U.S.-sponsored talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' office condemned the violence, calling it "part of an Israeli policy that aims to destroy everything," and asked the American administration to intervene to save the peace talks.
Saturday's incident started with an Israeli raid, which the military said aimed to arrest Hamza Abu el-Heija, a 22-year-old Hamas operative wanted for involvement in shooting and bombing attacks against Israelis.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner described el-Heija as a "ticking bomb" and said he was wanted for months and was allegedly in the final stages of planning a major shooting attack against Israelis.
Palestinians officials said the military ringed the house in the Jenin refugee camp overnight and ordered el-Heija outside. When he refused to come out, the soldiers stormed the building and a shootout ensued.
Lerner said everyone but el-Heija had left the building before the shootout. The military says el-Heija first shot an attack dog that was sent inside and then opened fire on the troops outside, wounding two soldiers. When he attempted to escape while still shooting at the Israelis, the troops returned fire and killed him, Lerner said.
Within minutes, hundreds of angry residents and gunmen gathered and attacked the soldiers. The troops opened fire and killed two Palestinians and wounded several more, he said. The military initially said three Palestinians were killed in the shootout but later corrected and revised the number.
El-Heija was the son of Hamas leader Jamal el-Heija, one of the longest serving prisoners being held in Israel. From his prison cell, the father praised his son's "heroism" and "blessed his confrontation with occupation forces until his last bullet," adding that he prayed in prison for his martyrdom.
The three main Palestinian militant groups, linked to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Abbas' Fatah, issued a joint statement warning of retribution against Israel and the Palestinian leadership for allegedly cooperating with it.
"The resistance in the West Bank is alive and won't die, and the Zionist enemy can't guess from where the resistance will attack. The blood of Jenin Martyrs won't go in vain," the groups said.
The Palestinian Authority bears "equal responsibility" along with Israel for the violence in Jenin, they said, adding that "our people won't forgive the Palestinian security apparatuses for this crime."
Throughout the day protesters in the West Bank and east Jerusalem hurled stones at Israel troops in response to the early morning event in Jenin. Outside one of the gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, demonstrators chanted and waved the Palestinian flag before they were dispersed by Israeli troops.
The Jenin refugee camp has been a flashpoint for violence in the past. During the Palestinian uprising last decade, the military launched a huge operation there to root out militants and dozens were killed.
Tensions have been heating up again in recent months with the perceived lack of progress in peace talks.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, Israel and the Palestinians restarted negotiations last July, setting a nine-month target for wrapping up a comprehensive peace deal establishing a Palestinian state and ending a century of conflict.
After realizing this was unrealistic, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry scaled back his ambitions and said he would aim for a "framework" peace deal by the April deadline. With even that more modest goal in question, the sides are now searching for a formula that will allow the talks to continue.
The Palestinians have two demands for an extension of the talks: a freeze in Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the release of the most senior Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Israel has indicated that it may not go forth with a planned prisoner release if the talks do not continue.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in 1967 — for an independent state. They have demanded that Israel agree to base the final borders with a future Palestine on the pre-1967 lines, with small land swaps that would allow Israel to keep some of the Jewish settlements it has built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israel refuses to commit to the pre-1967 borders ahead of time, saying these issues should be resolved in negotiations. It is demanding the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and cease incitement against Israel.