(JENIN, West Bank) — Israel withdrew its forces from the Jenin refugee camp just after midnight Wednesday, ending the largest military operation it’s conducted in the occupied West Bank in nearly twenty years.
The Israeli operation — which included drone airstrikes, hundreds of special forces and tanks — lasted 48 hours, leaving fatalities and scenes of earthquake-like destruction. The Palestinian Health Ministry says 12 Palestinians were killed, and 141 injured, 20 in critical condition. The Israeli Defense Forces reported one soldier was killed.
Israeli officials have defended the deadly incursion as a counterterrorism operation. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, told ABC News the aim was, “to dismantle terrorist infrastructure in the area and break the mentality of the camp as a ‘safe haven’ for terrorist operatives.”
The Jenin refugee camp is a stronghold for Palestinian militant groups, from the established Palestinian Islamic Jihad to new splinter groups like The Lions Den, Israeli and U.S. officials say. Over the last year, dozens of militants who’ve carried out deadly shootings, stabbings or car ramming attacks against Israeli civilians have hailed or taken shelter in the densely populated camp, according to Israeli and Palestinian security officials.
In a speech at the U.S. Embassy’s July 4th celebration in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called militants in the Jenin refugee camp, “the most legitimate target on the planet: people who want to annihilate our country.”
Netanyahu thanked the U.S. for supporting the operation. The Biden administration said it supported Israel’s right to defend itself.
Despite repeated pleas from Jerusalem and Washington, the Palestinian Authority has been unable, or unwilling, to send its own security forces into Jenin to root out militant activity. The camp is under President Mahmoud Abbas’s jurisdiction, but the deeply unpopular leader has lost much of his ability to govern, including on the security front, his critics say.
Abbas’s spokesperson Abu Rudneih denounced the Israeli operation as a “new war crime,” with the president promptly cutting off security ties with Israel, a step that will likely be temporary. In a sign of his embattled leadership, mourners heckled Abbas on Wednesday when he showed up at the funerals for the Palestinian victims. “You have no place here in the camp,” some shouted, “shame on you!”
Meanwhile, Israeli officials are hailing the operation a success. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement, “we have intercepted weapon production lines and confiscated thousands of explosive devices. We have demolished dozens of weapon manufacturing sites, hideouts and labs for the production of explosive devices.”
The IDF says it detained over 100 suspected Palestinian militants, arresting over 30. Of the 12 Palestinians killed, Hecht tells ABC News, “no non-combatants were killed during the counterterrorism activity in the Jenin camp. The IDF is not fighting against the Palestinian people – only against terrorist operatives.”
Activists inside the camp claim several of the 12 Palestinians killed were civilians.
Visiting an IDF command center near Jenin Tuesday, Netanyahu praised the Jenin operation and indicated it was the start of a new counterterrorism strategy.
“I can say that our extensive operation in Jenin is not a one-off,” Netanyahu said, adding “we will eradicate terrorism wherever we see it.”
The Israeli leader indicated the IDF may replace its nightly arrest raids in Jenin with less frequent, but longer sweeps of the area lasting a few days at a time.
But even as Israeli leaders praised the operation for striking a “severe blow” to Jenin militants, new Palestinian attacks undercut those claims and raised the specter that the deadly Israeli raid may only intensify the violence.
On Tuesday, the second day of the Jenin operation, a Palestinian attacker drove his car into pedestrians waiting at a bus stop in Tel Aviv, Israeli police said. After the impact, the attacker crawled out of his car window, wielding a knife, and stabbed two civilians before being shot dead by an armed civilian. Eight Israelis were wounded, three in serious condition, according to Israeli police.
The assailant was a Palestinian from a village near Hebron with no criminal record, according to Israeli authorities.
The Islamic militant group Hamas swiftly praised the attack, calling it the “first response to the Jenin Operation.”
Early Wednesday, after the Israeli Army withdrew from the Jenin refugee camp, militants in Gaza fired a volley of 5 rockets on the Israeli city of Sderot, according to the IDF. All were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome system and no one was reported injured, the IDF said.
Israel’s defense forces responded with airstrikes on what it called a Hamas rocket manufacturing site.
The residents of the camp, home to 18,000 Palestinians, expressed anger and shock at the level of destruction wrought by the IDF. Thousands who fled the violence returned home Wednesday to a neighborhood turned upside down.
Abed Al Salam Al Hayga, a social activist in the camp, told ABC News, “the level of destruction of the infrastructure is beyond imagination, the Israeli Army destroyed the streets of the camp with bulldozers and digging the water pipes network and electricity. The camp is now without electricity and water and no cars can be used in the camp.”
Clips posted on social media show streets in rubble, damaged apartments, blown out storefronts and crushed cars.
The NGO Doctors Without Borders says the destruction has hampered their efforts to deliver medical care to the dozens wounded.
The IDF did not immediately address this claim, but it said in a previous statement that all the injured were able to receive assistance.
ABC News’ Nasser Atta contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.