Israeli troops kill 5 Palestinians in West Bank gunbattles

Israel Palestinians

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli troops conducted a series of arrest raids against suspected Hamas militants across the occupied West Bank early Sunday, sparking a pair of gun battles in which five Palestinians were killed and two Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded.

It was the deadliest violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the West Bank in several weeks. The region has seen an increase in fighting in recent months, with tensions fueled by Israeli settlement construction, heightened militant activity in the northern West Bank and the aftermath of a bloody war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip last May.

The Israeli military said it had been tracking the Hamas militants for several weeks and that the raids were launched in response to immediate threats.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the militants were about to carry out attacks “in real time.” He praised the Israeli forces, saying they acted “as expected. They engaged the enemy and we back them completely.”

In a statement, the military said it launched five simultaneous raids and soldiers opened fire after being shot at in two locations. It said five militants were killed and several others were arrested.

It also said an officer and a soldier were seriously injured, possibly inadvertently by Israeli fire.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said two Palestinians were shot dead near the northern West Bank city of Jenin and three others were killed in Biddu, north of Jerusalem.

Hamas confirmed that four of the dead, including all three killed in Biddu, were members of the Islamic militant group. Palestinian officials said a 16-year-old boy was also among the dead, though it was not immediately known if he was a militant.

The Palestinian Authority, which administers semi-autonomous areas in the West Bank, condemned the killings and said the Israeli government was “fully and directly responsible for this bloody morning and the crimes committed by the occupation forces.”

But Hamas also criticized the Palestinian Authority, which maintains security coordination with Israel in a shared struggle against the Islamic group.

Hamas spokesman Abdulatif al-Qanou said that recent meetings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli officials “encouraged the occupation again to pursue the resistance.”

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip after seizing it from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, praised those killed as “heroic martyrs.” It called on its supporters to “devise tactics and means that harm the enemy and drain it with all possible forms of resistance.”

Also Sunday, Israel released Khalida Jarrar, a prominent Palestinian lawmaker, after nearly two years in prison. Jarrar, a senior figure in the Popular Front for the L