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West Bank fears ground invasion as Israel uses drone, helicopter strikes for first time in decades

Jenin residents fear a drone strike assassination portends a larger-scale military invasion and occupation of the city, as the Palestinian death toll climbs to 15 – at least half of them unarmed civilians – in less than 72 hours.

Jerusalem24 – Palestinians are bracing for a possible Israeli ground- and air- assault and invasion of Jenin following 72 hours of particularly intense violence in the occupied West Bank which have left 15 Palestinians including three children and four Israelis including one child dead.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been injured by the Israeli military and settlers in various attacks, including around 110 by live ammunition. Hundreds of Palestinian vehicles, businesses, homes, and plots of land have been torched or damaged.

An assassination operation carried out by aerial strike on Wednesday night shocked Palestinians as the first such drone strike to be carried out in the occupied West Bank in two decades.

Jenin-based activist Mohammad Atiq told Middle East Eye: “Since the decision was made to authorize this strike, the military will likely continue to use such targeted killings now.”

What led to this?

This latest escalation was triggered by an Israeli military raid on the city of Jenin on Monday morning which turned into a drawn-out battle when armed Palestinian fighters successfully detonated an IED under or near several military vehicles. Apache helicopters bombed the city before Israel sent for large ground reinforcements to evacuate the seven injured soldiers as well as the incapacitated vehicles.

Jenin has not witnessed strikes by attack helicopters since the Second Intifada.

The Israeli army killed seven Palestinians during the nine-hour raid including a 14-year-old girl and boy, with a further 91 injured by live ammunition, 18 of which remain in critical condition. During confrontations that erupted on Monday evening protesting the raid, a 20-year-old Palestinian youth was shot and killed by the army in the village of Hussan near Bethlehem.

The following day, on Tuesday afternoon, two Palestinians carried out a shooting attack near the illegal Israeli settlement of Eli which killed four Israeli settlers including a 17-year-old teenager and injured another four. One attacker was shot and killed at the site and the other was assassinated a few hours later after hailing a taxi (the driver was also sprayed with bullets and is being hospitalized in Jenin).

The shooting attack was followed by over 24 consecutive hours of attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian villages between Ramallah and Nablus. A 27-year-old Palestinian man was killed by Israeli fire, although it is unclear if the shot came from armed settlers or the army.

On Wednesday night, the army launched a drone strike targeting a vehicle in which three Palestinian fighters including a 17-year-old teenager were traveling after shooting towards the Al-Jalameh military checkpoint near Jenin, marking a further escalation after Monday’s helicopter strikes on the city.

It is the first time Israel uses drone strikes in the occupied West Bank since 2006.

“Send in the tanks”

Palestinian analyst Adnan Abu Amer told Safa that for the loss-averse Israeli military, drone-led assassinations are a natural shift in tactics following the Palestinian armed groups’ successful IED hits in Jenin on Monday. It also signals, he said, “an implicit recognition of the success of the resistance there and its ability to overcome Israeli security measures – a major security failure of the Israeli security establishment.”

This Israeli security apparatus, according to Israeli media, believes the goal of armed groups in the northern occupied West Bank is “to turn the area into Gaza or Lebanon”.

As such concerns proliferate, the Netanyahu administration has bene fielding increasingly vocal calls from the Israeli right – as well as the opposition – to launch a large-scale military operation, amid what both Israeli and Palestinian pundits invariably describe as a “loss of control” over the occupied West Bank.

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon tweeted on Tuesday: “Now is the time to strike hard and fast. I call on our Prime Minister to order a large-scale military operation and immediately reinstate the security barriers [checkpoints] that were removed.”

The ever-bombastic Itamar Ben-Gvir, meanwhile, called on Monday for “flattening buildings, erecting roadblocks, deporting terrorists, and passing the death penalty,” while Bezalel Smotrich said the time had come to “send in air and tank forces”.

And while their terminology differed, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman demonstrated the existence of a broad consensus across the Israeli government by calling for the administration “to wake up and to launch a wide military operation”.

The military itself may have resisted the idea until now, but it is beginning to “filter down” into the army, according to Yaniv Kubovich in Haaretz, even “sowing tension among senior military officials in general and in the army in particular.”

Amos Harel speculates in Haaretz that if a large-scale operation does take place (for which, he says, “accelerated preparations” are expected following Tuesday’s shooting attack), it will be “mainly due to the pressure from the political arena”.

Still, plenty of reservations exist “at the professional level”, says Harel, which make it a more likely outcome that the military will “make do with a limited operation for a few days”.

Another factor which could tip the scales in favor of more restrained action is American discontent. According to Haaretz, the US recently warned Israel that an “escalation” in the occupied West Bank could jeopardize current normalization efforts between Israel and the wider Arab region – a warning the US reiterated following Monday’s invasion, fearing Netanyahu might follow the recommendations of his cabinet and press for a full ground- and air-assault in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Palestinians themselves – even if broadly in agreement that any course of action bringing about events resembling the atrocities of the Second Intifada is an undesirable option – are on the fence about the significance of the last 72 hours’ events.

“On the one hand, the use of helicopters to bomb the camp means that the occupation was confronted by stiff resistance, which makes people proud,” Freedom Theater director and Jenin resident Mustafa Sheta told The New Arab. On the other hand, he added, the airstrikes were “an indication that the escalation in the occupied West Bank, and Jenin especially, might be irreversible and that soon we might be facing a new battle like that of 2002.”

Deliberate provocations

But if the Israeli administration does indeed nurture a desire to deescalate the situation, it is certainly not signaling this intention on the ground in the occupied West Bank.

A few hours after the drone strike which caught the West Bank by surprise, the army blew up the family home of Kamal Al-Joury in Nablus, forcing dozens of residents of nearby houses to evacuate in the middle of the night ahead of the detonation and firing large amounts of tear gas in the process. Al-Joury is accused by Israel of shooting and killing an Israeli soldier last year. Israeli systematically carries out the punitive demolition of the family homes of Palestinians charged with carrying out attacks against Israeli soldiers or civilians.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the army also raided the village of Orif – where the two perpetrators of Tuesday’s shooting attack hail from – with hundreds of soldiers and took measurements of the family homes of the two men in preparation for their punitive demolition. Such demolitions and the often-deadly raids that accompany them are viewed as collective punishment and always inflame tensions within an already reeling Palestinian population.

In addition to Wednesday’s demolition, both the Israeli government and settlers took a series of steps between Tuesday and Thursday deliberately aimed at provoking Palestinian anguish and anger.

Following Tuesday’s attack, hundreds of settlers led by right-wing members Netanyahu’s administration entered the evacuated illegal outpost of Evyatar overnight, calling on the government to allow settlers to establish themselves there permanently in response to the shooting.

On Wednesday, the government announced it would fast track the planning of 1,000 new settlement units within the illegal settlement of Eli where the shooting attack took place. Earlier this month, Israel announced the planning of 4,560 new settlement units across the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, including 371 in Eli.

On Thursday morning, Israeli settlers began building a new illegal outpost near Eli and on the lands of the village of Al-Laban Al-Shariqiya, one of the sites of the violent Israeli settler attacks on Tuesday. By mid-morning, the settlers had already set up six mobile homes and carved out a new road.

Uncertain days ahead

Tensions seem set to keep rising under the current conditions, and Palestinians across the West Bank (and in Jenin in particular) are bracing for what might be a particularly difficult weekend: the Israeli military tends to favor Fridays in carrying out major military operations.

And uncertainty lingers also for Palestinians – and others – within Israel.

Netanyahu said last week in response to a lawmaker at a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting that “ten divisions of soldiers” are currently being trained to fight Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, should the latter choose to rise against the government.

And while this scenario remains hypothetical, in recent days, the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan has witnessed very real confrontations between thousands of Druze and Israeli police over the construction of wind turbines on Druze agricultural lands.

If Netanyahu has so far sought to dispel the trouble via the diplomatic route, meeting with Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Mowafak Tarif, he has also hinted – as Ben-Gvir has said explicitly – that more force will be used against them if necessary.

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