“The withdrawal has begun. Some forces are already out,” said an Israel Defense Forces official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the military had not yet made an official announcement.
Palestinians, however, expressed wariness of reports that Israeli soldiers were leaving after almost 48 hours that forced thousands of Jenin residents to flee their homes or shelter inside. Palestinian media suggested that as some troops left the area, others were entering.
Squads of Israeli soldiers, bearing lists of suspected militants prepared by Israeli intelligence, had searched the Jenin refugee camp block by block. Late Tuesday, Palestinian social media posts warned hiding fighters not to reveal themselves in case the apparent pullout was a ruse.
The reports of a troop withdrawal followed a late flurry of violence in Jenin, where an Israeli airstrike near a cemetery left one Palestinian dead, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. And in northern Tel Aviv, a Palestinian man rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people at a bus stop, injuring eight.
The militant Islamist group Hamas claimed the assailant as one of its members, saying he acted in revenge for the Jenin attacks. After ramming the crowd, the man got out of the truck and stabbed two bystanders, according to a statement by Israeli police. He was then shot dead by an armed civilian in the area.
Abdel Wahhab Issa Hussein Khalayleh came from a village near Hebron in the southern West Bank, according to a Hamas statement. The group initially misidentified his brother, Hussein, as the attacker.
The Hamas statement called the “heroic operation” in Tel Aviv “a natural response to the Jenin massacre” and said, “Our people’s resistance will continue until the end of the occupation.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likewise said that even as the military was completing its mission, “our broad operation in Jenin is not a one-time event.”
“We will not allow Jenin to go back to being a city of refuge for terrorism,” Netanyahu said Tuesday at a military base near the city.
The violence has reached an intensity last seen in the region during the bloody days of the second intifada, two decades ago. Israel’s government, the most hard line in the country’s history, is struggling to contain a new movement of Palestinian militants fueled by young, disillusioned youths who have watched Israeli military raids on West Bank towns become longer and deadlier during the past year.
Even before the latest operation, those raids had started to unfold more often during morning commutes and next to busy marketplaces, with civilians getting trapped in the middle, especially in Jenin, which has been targeted as a militant hotbed. Far-right members of the government have called for a long-term occupation of the city.
On Tuesday night, the Israeli military said in a statement that during the two-day operation it dismantled roadside bombs and destroyed more than 300 explosives and dozens of underground hideouts, weapons storage sites and manufacturing facilities.
Soldiers confiscated dozens of weapons and rifles, hundreds of thousands of dollars in “terrorist funds,” and dozens of kilograms of explosive chemical materials, the IDF said.
“There is no point in the camp that we have not been, including the center,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesman, tweeted.
Hagari said all of the Palestinians killed — at least six of them teenagers — and more than 130 who were arrested since the start of the operation Monday were combatants.
But Israeli forces also used gas bombs and bullets to storm the Jenin government hospital where injured Palestinians were receiving treatment, Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila said in a statement.
“They are trying to bring the camp and its people to its knees, because it’s harming them,” said Mahmoud Balas, 47, a Jenin resident whose wife and five children have been too afraid to leave the camp since Monday. “But they will not succeed, God willing.”
An estimated 4,000 Palestinians fled the camp overnight, seeking shelter with family members in the surrounding city, according to Jenin’s mayor, Nidal Al-Obeidi.
“I’m tired of having to leave my house again and again,” said Umm Haitham al-Batawi, a 66-year-old resident of the Jenin camp, who spoke from the hospital where she said her daughter-in-law was being treated after being attacked by Israeli army dogs.
The Israeli military also suspected that some combatants had fled overnight, according to Israeli media.
Miri Eisin, a former senior intelligence officer in the Israeli military, said Jenin presents new security challenges — and could be on its way “to becoming the same thing as Gaza.”
“It’s an area that Israel is not in and where Israel does not want to go into, but where, periodically, it will need to do something — what we call in Gaza ‘mowing the grass’ — to lower the risks,” she said, referencing the Israeli military strategy used since 2006 to counter Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip.
In Gaza, Eisin said, the limited goal is to curb rocket fire; in Jenin, it is to constrain Palestinian attackers.
But security experts have said the retaliatory, tit-for-tat attacks that have come to characterize the prolonged bout of conflict could fuel deadlier confrontations, especially as the Israeli military operates in densely populated Palestinian towns.
As Israeli raids have intensified, security experts say, the influence of Hamas and smaller, quasi-affiliated militant groups has grown.
Eitan Dangot, a former Israeli military coordinator for Palestinian civilian affairs in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, said the military operation that began Monday aimed “to encircle the Jenin refugee camp as the capital of terrorism” and was only a partial solution that would not sufficiently deter future attacks.
Israel’s far-right government needs to develop ties with the Palestinian Authority, which is technically responsible for the region, he said, but which has abandoned Jenin and other areas in the northern West Bank to lawlessness.
“I don’t see Israel running to take responsibility for the West Bank’s 3 million citizens … including a new generation of militants” who have been abandoned by the Palestinian Authority for nearly two decades, said Dangot, speaking as news broke of the car ramming in Tel Aviv.
The prolonged ground incursion follows a more than year-long Israeli attempt to clamp down on new militias, especially in the Jenin camp and the surrounding area, from where many of the 50 Palestinians who have attacked Israelis since the start of the year have originated.
As West Bank violence has spiraled, Israel has repeatedly asserted that it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties in the crossfire. But the bloody battles being fought and weapons being used on the streets of Jenin are reminiscent of the Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005, known as the second intifada.
So far, 2023 is on pace to become one of the deadliest years for Palestinians, with more than 150 fatalities.
Many Palestinians also expected that the operation would fuel the cycle of violence.
“Buildings may crumble, cars may be reduced to wreckage, and countless individuals may be detained, wounded and even martyred,” said a statement from Mustafa Sheta, director of the Jenin refugee camp’s Freedom Theatre, which was known as a center of cultural Palestinian resistance throughout the second intifada. “These actions will only serve to breed a new generation that will carry the torch of resistance passed down by those who came before them, as we do today, and as our children will do in the future.”
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said Tuesday that Netanyahu was responsible for the escalation and that Jenin “has been and will remain unbreakable.”
Balousha reported from Gaza City. Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem and Sufian Taha in Jenin contributed to this report.