Palestinian toll rises as Israel steps up West Bank raids

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TUBAS, West Bank – At least 85 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank this year as Israeli forces have carried out nighttime raids on towns and villages, making it the deadliest in the occupied territory since 2016.

The army says the vast majority were militants or stone throwers who endangered the soldiers. The tally, from the Palestinian Health Ministry, includes Palestinians who carried out deadly attacks inside Israel.

But it also includes several civilians, including a veteran journalist and a lawyer who apparently unwittingly drove into a combat zone, as well as local youths who took to the streets in response to the invasion of their neighborhoods.

The duration and frequency of the raids have shed light on Israel’s tactics in the West Bank, where nearly 3 million Palestinians live under a decades-long occupation and where Palestinians view the military presence as a humiliation and a threat.

Israeli troops have regularly operated across the West Bank since Israel captured the territory in 1967.

Israel says it is dismantling militant networks that threaten its citizens and doing everything possible to avoid harming civilians. The Palestinians say the raids are aimed at keeping Israel’s 55-year-old military rule in the territories they want for a future state – a dream that seems as distant as ever without serious peace negotiations held for more than a decade.

Israel stepped up operations last spring after a series of deadly attacks by Palestinians on Israelis killed 17 people, some carried out by militants from the West Bank. There have been no deadly attacks since May, but relentless military operations have continued.

The Palestinian Health Ministry has reported 85 Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank annexed to East Jerusalem since the beginning of the year.

Four months from the end of the year, it is already the highest number since 2016, the end of a previous wave of violence, when 91 Palestinians were killed, according to annual data compiled by the Israeli group of defense of human rights B’Tselem.

The ministry’s tally includes known assailants and militants, but also veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and a 58-year-old man who was shot in the head outside a bakery earlier this month. The Israeli army says the two men may have been hit by Palestinian fire, but has provided no evidence to support its claims.

The dead include 17 teenagers under the age of 18, as well as six women, according to the ministry. Israel says teenagers and women are often involved in the violence, while critics accuse the army of using excessive force in many cases.

Israel is also holding more than 600 Palestinians without charge or trial in what is called administrative detention – the highest in six years.

Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli general who now heads the Israel Defense and Security Forum, said the accelerated pace of operations is the result of the recent wave of attacks and the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to repress militants in the areas it administers.

The Palestinian Authority is mired in a crisis of legitimacy stemming in large part from its cooperation with Israel on security issues. Palestinian officials say they will not help control the occupation, especially if there is no hope it will lead to independence.

Rights groups say that while some Israeli missions aim to combat specific threats, others are designed as a show of force or to protect the growing population of Jewish settlers.

Ori Givati ​​is the head of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group opposing the occupation that collects testimonies from former Israeli soldiers. Some soldiers recall making mock arrests, in which fully armed soldiers raided a house in the middle of the night – for training purposes.

Even more common, according to Givati, are so-called “Challenge and Response” operations, which he says he took part in himself while serving in the West Bank. In these, Israeli troops drive through Palestinian areas, sometimes with lights and loudspeakers on, hoping to lure stone-throwers or gunmen onto the streets so they can arrest them or to confront them.

“We occupy the Palestinians by creating more and more friction, by making our presence felt,” Givati ​​said. “We are invading their cities, their towns, their homes.”

In a statement, the military denied the allegations, saying it acts “only against threats and terrorists who pose a threat to security” in Israel and the West Bank.

Israel says it investigates all cases in which Israeli troops are suspected of killing civilians, but rights groups say most such investigations are quietly closed, with soldiers rarely facing serious harm. repercussions.

There were two notable exceptions this year.

The murder of Abu Akleh, a veteran on-air correspondent, prompted numerous independent investigations which concluded that she was likely killed by Israeli fire. Israel denies targeting her and says it is still investigating.

There was also the death in January of Omar Assad, a 78-year-old man who died shortly after Israeli soldiers tied him up and blindfolded him and left him in the cold. In this case, senior officers were reprimanded and stripped of their leadership roles.

Both were US citizens and the US raised both cases with Israel. Last week, Israel sacked four soldiers after they were filmed beating and kicking two detained Palestinians.

There was no such uproar over Salah Sawafta, who was shot outside the bakery as he returned from dawn prayers in the West Bank town of Tubas earlier this month. Israeli troops, who had gone to arrest suspected militants, were engaged in a shootout with Palestinian gunmen.

His family believe he was killed by an Israeli sniper in a building across the street. Zakreya Abu Dollah, the owner of the bakery who witnessed the shooting, said he saw Israeli soldiers fanning out in the street but no Palestinian gunmen or stone throwers in the immediate area.

The army says it is investigating and that Sawafta may have been hit by a stray bullet fired by Palestinian militants.

Jehad Sawafta said his late brother, who made his living selling animal feed, had no ties to any political faction or militant group.

Salah had a son and four daughters, one of whom was engaged last Friday. The bride’s father was killed a week before the wedding.

“His second daughter was supposed to get married on August 26, but then everything changed,” Jehad said. “These girls adored their father because he gave them a good and dignified life.”

Krauss reported from Ottawa, Ontario. Associated Press reporter Ami Bentov in Caesarea, Israel, contributed.

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