(MENAFN- Jordan Times)
JERICHO, Palestinian Territories - Israel said its forces killed on Monday five alleged Palestinian gunmen in a raid in the occupied West Bank, after a days-long search for suspects in a shooting near Jericho.
Hamas Islamists confirmed its fighters were among the dead, saying in a statement the Gaza-based group was mourning members of its military wing killed 'in an armed clash with the Zionist occupation'.
The early morning Israeli raid came amid a spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence and after days of what Jericho authorities have described as a 'siege' on the city since the shooting attack late last month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the two suspected assailants and three others were killed on Monday by agents from the Shin Bet domestic security agency and soldiers.
Israeli forces 'took out five of those terrorists, two of whom had tried to carry out the attack' on January 28, the premier said.
An Israeli security official, requesting anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media, told AFP the army was holding the bodies of the Palestinian dead.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have used the remains of people killed in clashes or attacks as bargaining chips throughout the conflict.
The army said in a statement 'a number' of armed men were killed in a gunfight during the raid on the Aqabat Jabr refugee camp at the entrance to the city, which lies close to the Jordanian border.
It reported no casualties among the Israeli forces.
An AFP photographer saw bullet holes covering the metal door of a wooden hut in the camp, while blood soaked into the floor inside.
Young Palestinians set tyres ablaze to block a road leading into Jericho, while shops and schools were shut as residents observed a general strike after the raid.
The Palestinian health ministry said one person remained in critical condition after being shot in the head by Israeli forces.
The ministry identified the five men killed and said they were aged between 21 and 28.
Violence is rare in Jericho, a popular destination for tourists who are drawn to the ancient city's religious and cultural sites.
Israel said Monday's raid had targeted“the Hamas terrorist squad that carried out the shooting attack” on January 28, when according to the army two armed men approached an Israeli settlement restaurant near the Palestinian city.
One of the gunmen had opened fire at the restaurant but his weapon jammed after firing just one bullet that did not hurt anyone.
Since the two suspected assailants fled the scene, the army has reinforced its presence around Jericho and carried out extensive searches at checkpoints.
An AFP correspondent last week reported hours-long queues as cars backed up at the entrances to Jericho.
Jericho Governor Jihad Abu Al Assal said the situation amounted to a“siege” which was“incurring huge costs” to local businesses, agriculture and the tourism industry.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called Monday's deadly raid a“major crime” and a“flagrant violation of international law”.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh described those killed as“heroes” who“fought until they were martyred defending their land and their holy sites”.
“The successive killings by the enemy in the West Bank will be disastrous for them,” he said in a statement.
Since the start of the year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed the lives of 41 Palestinian adults and children - including attackers, militants and civilians.
Six Israeli civilians, including a child, and one Ukrainian civilian have been killed over the same period in a single attack in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 June War.
Last year was the deadliest year in the West Bank since the United Nations started tracking casualties in the territory in 2005.
There were 235 fatalities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2022, with nearly 90 per cent of the deaths on the Palestinian side, according to AFP figures.