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Jerusalem, West Bank on Edge           01/27 06:10

   

   JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's defense minister signaled Friday that the 
military would stop its airstrikes if Palestinian militant groups halted rocket 
attacks, a day after the deadliest Israeli raid in decades raised the prospect 
of a major flare-up in fighting.

   The limited exchange of fire between Gaza militants and the Israeli armed 
forces has so far followed a familiar pattern that allows both sides to respond 
without leading to a major escalation. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant's 
instruction to the military to prepare for new strikes in the Gaza Strip "if 
necessary" also appeared to leave open the possibility that the violence would 
subside.

   Midday prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, often a catalyst for 
clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police, passed in relative calm, 
despite a heavy police presence. Still, residents of the holy city and the 
occupied West Bank remained on edge.

   The bombardments followed an Israeli raid in the flashpoint Jenin refugee 
camp that turned into a gun battle, which killed at least nine people, 
including seven militants and a 61-year-old woman.

   The raid also sparked clashes elsewhere during which Israeli forces killed a 
22-year-old in al-Ram, a Palestinian town north of Jerusalem. At the funeral in 
al-Ram, crowds of Palestinians carried the young man's body aloft and waved the 
flags of both Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority, and 
militant Hamas, which rules Gaza.

   The escalation in the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict created an 
early test for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new far-right government, 
which came to office as tensions with the Palestinians soared and has vowed to 
take a hard line.

   The raid also prompted the Palestinian Authority to halt security 
coordination with Israel and drew "deep concern" from the State Department just 
days before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to visit the 
region.

   So far, both the Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes seemed limited 
so as to prevent escalation into a full-blown war. Israel and Hamas have fought 
four wars and several smaller skirmishes since the militant group seized power 
in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

   Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza toward the south of Israel. 
Israel retaliated with nonlethal airstrikes on militant targets in Gaza, such 
as training camps and an underground rocket manufacturing site.

   Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant claimed the military dealt a "tough 
blow" to Palestinian militants in Gaza and said the army was preparing to 
strike "high-quality targets ... until peace is restored to the citizens of 
Israel."

   An uneasy calm prevailed around Al-Aqsa, revered by Jews as the Temple 
Mount. Tensions at the volatile Jerusalem holy site has triggered violence in 
the past, including a bloody Gaza war in 2021. The site is considered both the 
third-most sacred site in Islam, as well as the site of an ancient Jewish 
temple that is the holiest place in Judaism.

   Israeli police were out in force at entrances to the limestone alleys that 
lead to the sacred compound. Scores of Muslim worshippers gathered in the 
mosque's stone courtyard before the iconic golden Dome of the Rock and chanted 
in solidarity with those killed in the Jenin raid.

   "In spirit and blood, we will sacrifice you," they shouted. "Greetings 
Jenin, Greetings Gaza."

   Eyad Shaher, a 45-year-old construction worker from Bethlehem who prays 
weekly at Al-Aqsa, said he was relieved to have a peaceful morning.

   "Thank God it was good and there were no problems after that cursed day," he 
said, referring to Thursday's events.

   Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last 
spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks. Jenin, which was an 
important a militant stronghold during the 2000-2005 intifada and has again 
emerged as one, has been the focus of many of the Israeli operations.

   Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last 
year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to 
leading Israeli rights group B'Tselem. Last year, 30 people were killed in 
Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

   So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed, according to a count by 
The Associated Press.

   Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the 
incursions and others not involved in the confrontations also have been killed.

   Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomat in the United Arab Emirates, warned Friday 
that "the Israeli escalation in Jenin is dangerous and disturbing and 
undermines international efforts to advance the priority of the peace agenda." 
The UAE recognized Israel in 2020 along with Bahrain, which has remained silent 
on the surge in violence.

   News of the nine killed in Jenin and the overnight rockets blared from 
phones and radios in Jerusalem's Old City on Friday as young Palestinians 
milled around and women hawked raisins.

   Ibrahim Salameh, a 21-year-old smoking on the steps of Damascus Gate, said 
he had never been so scared. On Wednesday, he said, his teenage neighbor was 
killed as police entered the Shuafat refugee camp to demolish an attacker's 
home.

   "Every day there's more and more fear, more tension," he said. "Somehow I'm 
living with this idea that at any moment I could be shot dead."

   In the West Bank, Fatah announced a general strike and most shops were 
closed in Palestinian cities. The PA declared Thursday that it would halt the 
ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to 
contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part 
because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship, and also 
due to U.S. and Israeli pressure.

   The PA has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and 
almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp.

   Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart 
attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel's 55-year, 
open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east 
Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want 
those territories to form any eventual state.

   Israel has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that now house 
500,000 people. The Palestinians and much of the international community view 
settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the 
conflict have been moribund for over a decade.

 
 
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