JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli troops on Sunday killed three alleged Palestinian militants in the northern West Bank, further escalating a wave of violence in which two other people, including a young Palestinian man believed to have been gunned down by extremist Jewish settlers, were killed over the weekend.
The Israeli army said it shot the three men near the Jenin refugee camp — the site of a large-scale military operation last month. It said the three men had just exited the camp and were on their way to carry out an attack and that an M-16 rifle was recovered from their vehicle.
The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups condemned the killings, though it was not immediately known if the three men belonged to either organization. Israel identified the leader of the group as Naif Abu Tsuik, 26, saying he was a “leading military operative” from the camp.
The Jenin camp is known as a militant stronghold. Last month, the army carried out a two-day offensive in the camp, killing 12 Palestinians, including at least eight militants, and causing widespread damage to the densely populated area. An Israeli soldier also was killed in the fighting.
But the offensive appears to have done little to halt a broader wave of violence that began in early 2022 and has gained momentum since Israel’s new hard-line government took office in December. The government is dominated by ultranationalist West Bank settler leaders and other allies with close ties to the settler movement. A growing number of Israeli voices have said their presence in the government has worsened the tense atmosphere by emboldening young militant settlers to attack Palestinians.
The Israeli news site Ynet reported Sunday that Ronen Bar, head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, recently warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that settler violence was becoming a strategic threat and raising the likelihood of Palestinian attacks in retaliation. The report drew angry condemnations from leading members of the government.
The report said that Bar issued his warning before a Friday night incident in which armed settlers stormed into a Palestinian village and killed a 19-year-old man. On Saturday, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed an Israeli security guard in central Tel Aviv before another guard shot and killed the attacker.
Two Israeli settlers have been arrested in the Friday night shooting of 19-year-old Qusai Matan in the village of Burqa.
The army said the Israeli settlers arrived in the area to herd sheep, leading to clashes between Israelis and Palestinians from the village. Israeli media reported that one of the suspects in the incident, Elisha Yered, was a former aide to an ultranationalist lawmaker in the “Jewish Power” party, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s key coalition partners.
The shooting is part of an escalation of settler attacks on Palestinian civilians in recent months, and several Israeli commentators warned Sunday that assailants felt emboldened by fellow ultranationalists in key positions in government.
In the right-leaning Hebrew-language daily Israel Hayom, pundit Yoav Limor wrote that there are “armed Jewish militias that are operating like terrorist groups in Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.
“If the state of Israel doesn’t come to its senses and stop them immediately, the damage they will do is far more dangerous than any terror attack of the enemy,” he said.
Leading politicians in the government lashed out at the criticism. “The Israeli media (again) got confused: a Jew who defends himself and others against the murder of Palestinians, is not a murder suspect, but a hero who will receive my full support,” tweeted National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a settler leader who leads an ultranationalist faction in government.
“We see there is confusion as to who is an enemy,” said Limor Son Har-Melech, a member of Ben-Gvir’s “Jewish Power” party, whose former spokesman was one of the arrested suspects.
Tally Gotliv, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, said a “leftist agenda” and “deep state” have infiltrated the Shin Bet.
Early on Sunday, the Israeli military said troops measured the home of the Palestinian attacker in Saturday’s Tel Aviv killing to prepare for its demolition in the village of Rumana, near Jenin.
Israel says home demolitions are meant to deter future attackers but critics say they amount to collective punishment against the families of assailants and only exacerbate tensions with Palestinians.
Violence has spiraled in the northern West Bank with the rise of shooting attacks by Palestinian groups against Israelis and daily arrest raids by the Israeli military, and growing attacks by extremist Jewish settlers.
The surge in fighting is one of the worst between Israelis and Palestinians in nearly two decades. More than 160 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
Israel says most killed have been militants, but stone-throwing youths protesting army raids and innocent bystanders have also been killed.
At least 26 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis so far this year.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.