RAMALLAH, West Bank / TEL AVIV – Israeli troops killed at least four Hamas militants in armed clashes during Sunday raids on one of the group’s cells in the occupied West Bank, an IDF spokesperson said.
Israeli officials have long feared that Hamas, which manages the Gaza Strip, intends to strengthen itself in the West Bank and challenge its rival there, the West-backed Palestinian Authority (PA), increasing security risks for Israel.
The incidents in the early hours of Sunday marked the most serious clashes between Israel and Hamas in the West Bank in months and threatened to escalate tensions in the territory and along Israel’s border with Gaza.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party lost control of Gaza to Hamas in internal fighting in 2007, accused Israel in a statement of “executions on the ground against our people.”
Hamas called on Palestinians in the West Bank “to step up resistance against the occupier in all areas” following the raids. A Hamas spokesman said all of the men were members of the group, which Israel and the West consider a terrorist organization.
An IDF spokesman said troops carried out five raids in the West Bank “in order to prevent a cell of a Hamas terrorist organization from functioning” and launching attacks.
“Three Hamas terrorists were killed in crossfire in the village of Biddu, southeast of Ramallah,” in the central West Bank, the spokesperson said. “During the attempt to arrest a wanted suspect in the village of Burqin, a shootout broke out. A terrorist has been killed.
Four other people were arrested, the spokesperson said.
The Palestinian health ministry said four Palestinians were killed in two shootings in the central and northern West Bank.
On his way to New York, where he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the operation targeted Hamas men “on the verge of carrying out terrorist attacks.”
He said that the Israeli forces had “engaged the enemy, and we fully support them.”
Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in a 1967 war. It withdrew its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The Palestinian Authority, which seeks to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, exercises limited autonomy over the territory under interim peace agreements with Israel