Israeli forces on Wednesday stormed into a major Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank for a rare daylight arrest raid, triggering a fierce gunbattle that killed at least 10 Palestinians and wounded scores of others.
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.
Among the dead were two Palestinian men, ages 72 and 61, and a 16-year-old boy, according to health officials.
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. 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.
Israeli officials liken these operations to “mowing the lawn,” saying they are necessary to prevent a difficult situation from turning worse. 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 center, to arrest three militants suspected in previous shooting attacks. The main suspect was wanted in the killing of an Israeli soldier last fall.
The military usually conducts raids at night in what it says is a tactic meant to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. But military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said forces moved quickly after intelligence services tracked down the men in a hideout.
Hecht said Israeli forces surrounded the building and asked the men to surrender, but instead they opened fire. One militant who tried to flee the building was shot and killed. He said the military then fired missiles at the house, flattening the building and killing the other two men.
At the same time, he said, troops that had set up an outside perimeter came under heavy fire, setting off an intense gunfight. The military said others hurled rocks and explosives at the troops, and officials released a video taken from inside an armored vehicle as crowds of Palestinian youths pelted it with stones. There were no Israeli casualties.
The influx of wounded overwhelmed the city’s Najah Hospital, said Ahmad Aswad, the head nurse of the cardiology department.
The 36-year-old medic told The Associated Press that he saw many patients shot in the chest, head and thighs. “They shot to kill,” he said.
In a moment he said will haunt him, he and a colleague carefully extracted a bullet from a 61-year-old man’s heart. After the chaos subsided and they pronounced their patient dead, they looked at the man’s face. It was his colleague’s father, 61-year-old Abdelaziz Ashqar.
His colleague, Elias Ashqar, was overcome and went silent. “It didn’t feel like we were in reality,” Aswad said.
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.
Time-stamped security footage widely shared online appeared to show two unarmed young men running down a street. Gunshots are heard, and both fall to the ground, with one’s hat flying off his head.