JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli security forces killed a Palestinian militant during a raid in the northern West Bank on Thursday, Palestinian health officials said, the latest escalation of violence in what has been the deadliest start of a year for Palestinians in the occupied territory in more than two decades.
Israeli forces stormed into the northern city of Tulkarem, home to an emerging militant group with ties to the armed offshoot of the nationalist Fatah party. The Palestinian Health Ministry said that 25-year-old Amir Abu Khadija was shot multiple times in the head and legs. The Tulkarem branch of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed Abu Khadija as its leader.
The Israeli military said Abu Khadija was wanted for recent shooting attacks on Israeli settlements and security forces. Troops raided his hideout apartment in Tulkarem and shot and killed Abu Khadija when he drew his gun, the military said, adding that the army confiscated an M-16 assault rifle and the car he allegedly used to carry out drive-by shooting attacks. Security forces said they also arrested another member of the militant group.
The militant group said Abu Khadija died in an “armed clash” with Israeli forces. Images of his blood-soaked body and his trashed apartment circulated online, as angry Palestinians mourned what they described as the first “martyr” of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began Thursday in the Mideast.
This year, as in years past, the Muslim fasting month has spurred concerns of a surge in violence in the contested city of Jerusalem. Ramadan overlaps with the Jewish holiday of Passover in early April, raising the possibility of friction as sacred sites in Jerusalem’s Old City host an unusually large influx of worshippers and visitors. The scared compound housing the Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam. Known to Jews as the Temple Mount, it's also the holiest in Judaism.
Adding to tensions as Ramadan begins are the conditions of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
A group representing Palestinian prisoners called this week for a mass hunger strike of at least 2,000 inmates in protest of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir's toughening of prison measures. The rules at issue include showers limited to four minutes, bakeries shut down for prisoners and restricted exercise time and family visits, according to prisoner rights groups.
But late Wednesday just before Ramadan, the prisoners backed down from the protest, claiming a victory in negotiations after they said Ben-Gvir accepted their demands. Ben-Gvir denied striking any deal with prisoners, insisting there had been no change in prison conditions and threatening those who go on hunger strike with further punishment.
While Israel considers Palestinian prisoners to be terrorists, they are widely seen as heroes in Palestinian society for resisting an Israeli military occupation that is now in its 56th year.
The escalating violence in the West Bank under Israel's most right-wing government in history has angered regional Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which diplomatically recognized Israel in 2020. So far this year, over 85 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank, according to a tally by The Associated Press, about half of them affiliated with militant groups. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 15 people, all but one of them civilians.
Late Wednesday, the Gulf Cooperation Council denounced what it called “repeated Israeli violations against the Palestinian people” in a statement issued on behalf of the six-nation bloc’s foreign ministers. The ministers also condemned the new Israeli government's expansion of settlements in the West Bank and called again for negotiations leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
The GCC is a regional bloc including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Saudi Arabia and the head of the GCC also both condemned an Israeli decision earlier this week to repeal a 2005 act that saw four Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank dismantled. The Saudi Foreign Ministry called the decision “a flagrant violation of all international laws” that “contributes to undermining regional and international peace efforts.”
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.