Israeli gunfire kills 3 in West Bank after raid on Hamas safe-house sparks melee

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

Israeli security forces killed three Palestinians in the West Bank early Saturday in a shootout during a raid on a hideout of a wanted Hamas militant, the army and Palestinians said, the deadliest incident in the territory in months.

The killings drew swift condemnations from Palestinian officials and cast a pall over efforts to extend U.S.-sponsored peace talks beyond an April deadline.

Israeli forces have killed several Palestinians, most of them unarmed, in a spate of incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent weeks, heightening tensions on the ground with no signs of diplomatic progress.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, urged Washington "to act quickly to prevent the collapse" of peace efforts.

The army said that special forces and intelligence agents carried out an early morning raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank to arrest Hamza Abu al Hija, a militant from the Islamist group Hamas.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman, called Abu al Hja a "ticking bomb" who was wanted for bombings and shootings and "involved in advanced stages of preparation of more attacks" against Israeli soldiers and civilians in the West Bank, directed by Hamas operatives in Gaza.

Lerner said that when the special forces arrived at Abu al Hija's safe-house in the early morning hours, he opened fire, drawing return fire and a call on all occupants to leave the building. Abu al Hija continued to fire at troops, shot an attack dog sent in to disable him, and lightly wounded two Israeli officers during an escape attempt before he was killed, Lerner said.

The owner of the house, Azmi Husniya, told the Reuters news agency that he had seen Abu al Hija jump from a window while trying to flee following gunfire at the building that lasted about half an hour.

The raid triggered street clashes between soldiers and local residents, who pelted troops with rocks and firebombs, the army said.

Lerner said the crowd was led by armed militants who opened fire and hurled explosive devices, drawing return fire that killed two Palestinians and wounded at least seven more.

Palestinians identified the dead as Mahmoud Abu Zeina, a member of the militant Islamic Jihad group, and Yazan Jabarin of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Abbas's Fatah movement. The two groups, along with Hamas, threatened "painful" retaliation against Israel in a joint statement, according to the Palestinian news agency Maan.

Prodded by Washington, Israel and the Palestinians resumed negotiations last July with the goal of reaching an accord in nine months, but faced with difficulties, Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to find a formula to extend the negotiations beyond April.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, opposes any peace deal with Israel, and its supporters chanted slogans against Abbas as the bodies of the dead were carried through the city of Jenin, followed by thousands of mourners.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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