Israeli military forces killed at least five Palestinians near the city of Jericho in the occupied West Bank on Monday, during a gunfight that the Israeli Army said began after soldiers sought to arrest gunmen accused of recently attempting an attack at a nearby Israeli settlement.
The deaths near Jericho brought the number of Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank since the start of the year to more than 40, most of them during gun battles that broke out during Israeli operations to arrest members of armed Palestinian groups.
That toll constitutes the deadliest start to a year for Palestinians in the West Bank in the past decade and a half, drawing comparisons with the violence of the early years of this century, when a Palestinian uprising, known as the second intifada, left roughly 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis dead.
Seven Israelis have also been killed since the start of the year, all during a mass shooting on Jan. 27 by a Palestinian attacker in East Jerusalem — the deadliest attack in the city since 2008.
Israeli officials have said that the Israeli death toll this year could have been far higher if two Palestinians, both carrying assault rifles, had not aborted an attempted attack a day later at a restaurant in an Israeli settlement south of Jericho, a Palestinian city in the east of the occupied West Bank, close to the border with Jordan.
Video circulating on social media of the episode appeared to show two men with assault rifles arriving at the restaurant before suddenly retreating; Israeli officials said one of their weapons malfunctioned.
The Israeli Army said that its raid on Monday morning on a Palestinian neighborhood adjacent to the settlement was an attempt to capture the two men and other members of their cell. At least five Palestinians were killed during an ensuing gunfight, an Israeli security official said.
Palestinians officials were not immediately able to confirm the death toll from the raid on Monday, indicating that Israeli soldiers had taken the dead bodies with them after the raid. The Israeli Army declined to comment, but circulated a photograph of five assault rifles that it said Israeli soldiers had taken from Palestinians at the scene.
But the Palestinian Health Ministry said that at least three Palestinians were injured in the gun battle.
Tensions were already high in the West Bank amid rising Palestinian anger at the entrenchment of the Israeli occupation, which began when Israel captured the territory from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.
Hundreds of Israeli settlements have since been built there, curbing Palestinian hopes of sovereignty, and leading to the emergence of a two-tier legal system that tries settlers in civilian courts and Palestinians in military ones.
In response to that impasse, new groups of young Palestinian fighters have emerged in the past year. Their members are angry at both Israel and their leaders in the Palestinian Authority, the semiautonomous body that administers Palestinian areas in the West Bank and which many Palestinians perceive as working too closely with Israeli officials.
Conscious of that perception, the authority partially suspended its coordination with the Israeli security establishment last month — a relationship that has helped to curb spasms of past violence.
The Israeli Army reported that the gunmen targeted in the operation Monday were affiliated with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas did not immediately confirm a connection to the slain gunmen, but it praised their actions and had already acknowledged over the weekend that it had an active cell in the area.
Confirmation of Hamas’s involvement would constitute a new and portentous development. Though dominant in Gaza, Hamas has in recent years kept a lower profile in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinian areas like Jericho are dominated by Fatah, a secular political movement.
Amid the current surge of violence, Hamas has previously avoided claiming direct responsibility for attacks, leery of provoking Israeli reprisals on Gaza. But a direct connection between violence in the West Bank and the Hamas leadership would risk drawing Gaza into the fight.