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Rare Israeli air strike in the West Bank a ‘rehearsal for war’, say Palestinians in occupied territory

An escalation in deadly attacks against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including a rare air strike in the Jenin refugee camp, has left many people fearing that the Israeli military is preparing to declare war in the territory.

As Israel continues its bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip ahead of an expected ground invasion, dozens of Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed by Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and in attacks by Israeli settlers, while hundreds have been arrested in widespread raids.

Mustafa Sheta, the general manager of the Freedom Theatre at the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, said a recent air raid in the densely populated area took residents by surprise.

He likened it to a “rehearsal” for a bigger attack. “That’s what happened in July – they divided the camp, destroyed the infrastructure, destroyed the streets, the walls, had snipers in the buildings,” he told i.

TULKARM, WEST BANK - OCTOBER 20: Relatives mourn during the funeral of 13 Palestinian people killed due to the Israeli attack at Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarm, West Bank on October 20, 2023. (Photo by Issam Rimawi/Anadolu via Getty Images)
People mourn during the funeral of Palestinian people killed in an Israeli attack at Nur Shams refugee camp in Tulkarm, West Bank (Photo by Issam Rimawi/Anadolu via Getty Images)

“It’s like a scenario if they want to attack the West Bank.”

Palestinian officials said at least two people were killed after Israel launched a pre-dawn air strike on al-Ansar Mosque in Jenin on Sunday. The IDF claimed several members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – a smaller and more radical Palestinian militant group – had been operating a command centre under the mosque.

Israel rarely uses air power in the West Bank. In July, the IDF launched airstrikes from attack helicopters and carried out a series of strikes with drones, with the military operation reaching a level of intensity not seen for almost two decades.

IDF spokesperson Lt-Col Richard Hecht refused to say what type of aircraft was involved in the strike on al-Ansar Mosque, but the Times of Israel reported that it was believed to have been carried out by a fighter jet due to the type of munition that was used.

If true, it would be the first strike by a fighter jet in the West Bank since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005.

Mr Sheta said the “whole of Jenin woke up” after hearing a “big bomb”. He added: “The whole space of Jenin is just 1km, the mosque is about half a kilometre away [from the theatre]. It’s so close to many people.”

Before the incident, Mr Sheta said people received warnings from the IDF to stay away from militants due to an impending incursion, but were not told when it would happen. Families were sleeping on the streets in preparation for an attack, which happened around 2am.

At least 95 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, the Palestinian health ministry reported on Monday.

The tally includes two Palestinians who were killed during a raid at the Jalazone refugee camp near the central West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday. The Israeli military said suspects had hurled “explosive devices and stone blocks” from roofs at security forces, who responded with live fire.

Israel clamped down on the territory immediately after the Hamas assault, which killed more than 1,400 people. Since the start of hostilities, Israel said its forces have detained more than 700 people in the West Bank, where they clashed with gunmen and some youths who threw stones. Of those arrested, 480 are members of Hamas, Israel claimed.

The intensified violence follows more than a year of escalating raids and arrests in the West Bank and deadly Palestinian attacks on Israelis. It has added pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers parts of the West Bank and is deeply unpopular among Palestinians.

Analysts have suggested a potential Israel-Palestinian war on three fronts – along with continuing fighting in Gaza, there is a threat of an invasion from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group in the north, plus the need to maintain order in the West Bank.

Mr Sheta surmised that Israel could be preparing for a total occupation of the West Bank and the displacement of its more than 2.5 million Palestinian inhabitants, adding that “people don’t trust the Palestinian Authority at all”.

Many Palestinians in the occupied territory will refuse to leave, according to Soraida Hussein, who lives in Ramallah.

She said Palestinians have already been displaced twice, following wars in 1948 and 1967, and do not want to be part of a third exodus. “I will not leave,” she told i. “Let [the West Bank] be destroyed on my head, I am staying.

“We will not become refugees, we are indigenous people of this land.”

Beyond the rising tensions in the West Bank, many military checkpoints have closed, roads blocked and the movement of Palestinians throughout the territory restricted, Ms Hussein said. She has been unable to visit her mother-in-law in Jenin, or travel to her office in Jerusalem.

She described nightly raids in the city and mass arrests, as well as a surge in attacks by Israeli settlers who are “terrorising” Palestinian families along with the military.

“It feels like preparation of a bigger attack,” she said.

“We don’t know how things will unfold in Gaza, or what will happen in the West Bank. We don’t know if we have to prepare ourselves, but how? And for what?”

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