Five Palestinians have been killed after gun battles erupted when Israeli troops conducted a series of raids against suspected Hamas militants across the occupied West Bank.
The fighting on Sunday was the deadliest violence between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the West Bank in several weeks. Two Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded.
The region has seen an increase in fighting in recent months, with tensions fuelled 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 in 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.
Israel’s 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 criticised the Palestinian Authority, which maintains security coordination with Israel in a shared struggle against the Islamic group.
Hamas spokesperson 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 on 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 Liberation of Palestine, has been in and out of Israeli prisons for years – often without being charged.
The PFLP has an armed wing and is considered a terrorist group by Israel and western countries, but Jarrar has not been implicated in attacks. She was sentenced to two years in prison in March for membership in a banned group but given credit for time already served. She was freed several weeks before her sentence was to end.
Recent months have seen a rise in violence in the West Bank, with more than two dozen Palestinians killed in sporadic clashes with Israeli troops and during protests.
Many of the clashes have occurred near Beita, a Palestinian village where residents regularly demonstrate against an unauthorized settlement outpost, and near Jenin, which is known as a militant stronghold.