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Gaza rockets, Israeli strikes follow deadly West Bank raid

Nearly 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year

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TEL AVIV, Feb 23 (AP): Palestinian militants in Gaza launched rockets at southern Israel and Israeli aircraft struck targets in the coastal enclave early on Thursday after a deadly gun battle with Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank killed 10 Palestinians.

A 66-year-old man died after the raid from tear gas inhalation. The bloodshed extends one of the deadliest periods in years between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, where dozens of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the start of the year. Palestinian attacks on Israelis in 2023 have killed 11 people.

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The violence comes in the first weeks of Israel’s new far-right government, which has promised to take a tough line against the Palestinians and pledged to ramp up settlement construction on lands Palestinians seek for their future state.

Israel was bracing for a retaliation and police were stepping up security in sensitive areas. A day after a raid in January on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank that killed 10 Palestinians, a Palestinian shot and killed seven people outside a synagogue in east Jerusalem.

On Thursday, police said security guards at the entrance to a West Bank settlement shot a woman who police said attempted to stab the guards. Her condition was not immediately known.

The Israeli military said Palestinian militants fired six rockets from the Gaza Strip toward the country’s south early on Thursday. The Israeli military said air defences intercepted five of the rockets, which were fired toward the cities of Ashkelon and Sderot. One missile landed in an open field.

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Israeli aircraft then struck several targets in northern and central Gaza, including a weapons manufacturing site and a military compound belonging to the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza. There were no reports of injuries in Israel or Gaza.

Violence in the West Bank often sets off a response from militants in Gaza, although the rocket attacks were not immediately claimed by Palestinian militant groups.

Among the 11 killed in Wednesday’s raid in Nablus were three Palestinian men, ages 72, 66 and 61, and a 16-year-old boy, according to health officials. Scores of others were wounded.

It was one of the bloodiest battles in nearly a year of fighting in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and raised the likelihood of further bloodshed. Israeli police said they were on heightened alert, while the Hamas militant group in Gaza said its patience was “running out.” Islamic Jihad, another militant group, vowed to retaliate.

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In response to the raid, a strike was called across the West Bank and schools, universities and shops all shut down in protest. Schools and universities were shuttered in Gaza.

The four-hour operation left a broad swath of damage in a centuries-old marketplace in Nablus, a city known as a militant stronghold.

In one emotional scene, an overwhelmed medic pronounced a man dead, only to notice the lifeless patient was his father. Elsewhere, an amateur video showed two men, apparently unarmed, being shot as they ran in the street.

Israel has been carrying out stepped-up arrest raids of wanted militants in the West Bank since a series of deadly Palestinian attacks in Israel last spring. Israel says the raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks. But the raids have shown few signs of slowing the violence, and in cases like Wednesday’s operation, can raise the likelihood of reprisals.

The Israeli military said it entered Nablus, the West Bank’s commercial centre, to arrest three militants suspected in previous shooting attacks. The main suspect was wanted in the killing of an Israeli soldier last fall.

The influx of wounded overwhelmed the city’s Najah Hospital, said Ahmad Aswad, the head nurse of the cardiology department.

In the Old City of Nablus, people stared at the rubble that had been a large home in the centuries-old marketplace. From one end to the other, shops were riddled with bullets. Parked cars were crushed. Blood stained the cement ruins. Furniture from the destroyed home was scattered among mounds of debris.

Various Palestinian militant groups claimed six of the dead — including the three targeted in the raid — as members. There was no immediate word on whether the others belonged to armed groups. Later, officials said a 66-year-old man had died from tear gas inhalation.

As the bodies were paraded through the crowd on stretchers, thousands of people packed the streets, chanting in support of the militants. Masked men fired into the air.

The fighting comes at a sensitive time, less than two months after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hard-line government took office. It presents an early challenge for Netanyahu, who on top of spiralling violence is also facing waves of protests from Israelis against a plan to overhaul the country’s justice system.

The government is dominated by ultranationalists who have pushed for tougher action against Palestinian militants and vowed to entrench Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank. Israeli media have quoted top security officials as expressing concern that this could lead to even more violence as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches.

Nearly 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

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