JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank - Israel withdrew troops from a West Bank militant stronghold Wednesday, but warned that its most intense military operation in the occupied territory in nearly two decades could be repeated. Twelve Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in the two-day raid.
Residents of the Jenin refugee camp emerged from their homes to find alleys lined by piles of rubble and flattened or scorched cars. Shopkeepers and bulldozers started clearing the debris. Thousands who had fled the fighting began returning.
Kefah Dabayyah, a 33-year-old Jenin refugee camp resident, said that he and his family had returned Wednesday to find widespread destruction.
"Roads were destroyed and many houses were affected, glass from windows was everywhere," he said. His home was not hit, but there was no water, electricity or internet service.
The army claimed to have inflicted heavy damage on militant groups in the operation, which included a series of airstrikes and hundreds of ground troops. But it remained unclear whether there would be any lasting effect after more than a year of heavy fighting in the West Bank.
Ahead of the withdrawal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to carry out similar operations if needed.
"At these moments we are completing the mission, and I can say that our extensive operation in Jenin is not a one-off," he said during a visit to a military post on the outskirts of Jenin. "We will eradicate terrorism wherever we see it and we will strike at it."
The Jenin raid was one of the most intense Israeli military operations in the West Bank since an armed Palestinian uprising against Israel's open-ended occupation ended two decades ago.
Some of the scenes from Jenin, including massive army bulldozers tearing through camp alleys, were eerily similar to those from a major Israeli incursion in 2002, which lasted for eight days and became known as the battle of Jenin.
Both operations, two decades apart, were meant to crush militant groups in the camp and deter and prevent attacks on Israelis emanating from the camp. In each case, the army claimed success.
However, the continued cycle of army raids and Palestinian attacks raised new questions about Israel’s tactics. This week’s raid had wide support across Israel’s political spectrum, but some critics in the country argued the impact is short-lived, with slain gunmen quickly replaced by others.
"As usual, these things are best taken in proportion. To the security establishment, this is a successful operation thus far, but it holds no real chance of effecting a fundamental change in the state of affairs in the West Bank," wrote Amos Harel, military affairs commentator for the Haaretz daily.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose autonomy government administers parts of the West Bank, has rejected violence against Israelis, but has effectively lost control over several strongholds of gunmen. Amateur videos posted on social media appeared to show angry residents of Jenin hurling stones at the Palestinian Authority police headquarters after the Israeli military’s withdrawal.
Mass funerals for the Palestinians killed in the raid drew thousands of mourners. At one stage, participants booed representatives of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, chanted their support for a local militant group and ran them out of the cemetery.
Many Palestinians see the actions of the gunmen as an inevitable result of 56 years of occupation and the absence of any political process with Israel. They also point to increased West Bank settlement construction and violence by extremist settlers.
Palestinian health officials said 12 Palestinians were killed in Jenin and more than 140 were wounded, including 83 who needed treatment in hospitals. Another Palestinian man was killed by Israeli forces in an unrelated incident near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Dr. Wissam Bakr, the head of Jenin Hospital, said most of the wounded were shot in the head and chest, and that 20 suffered severe injuries.
The Israeli military has claimed it killed only militants, but it has not provided details.
Summing up the raid, the military said it had confiscated thousands of weapons, bomb-making materials and caches of money. Weapons were found in militant hideouts and civilian areas alike, in one case beneath a mosque, the military said.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the army had inflicted a heavy blow on militants, saying those who try to harm Israelis "will meet an iron wall and the strength of the military and security forces, and will be held responsible for their actions."
The withdrawal came hours after a Hamas militant rammed his car into a crowded Tel Aviv bus stop and began stabbing people, wounding eight, including a pregnant woman who reportedly lost her baby. The attacker was killed by an armed bystander. Hamas said the attack was revenge for the Israeli offensive.
Early Wednesday, militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza also fired five rockets toward Israel, which Israel said were intercepted. Israeli jets struck several sites in Gaza.
The large-scale raid comes amid a more than yearlong spike in violence that has created a challenge for Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is dominated by ultranationalists who have called for tougher action against Palestinian militants only to see the fighting worsen.
Over 140 Palestinians have been killed this year in the West Bank, and Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis have killed at least 25 people, including a shooting last month that killed four settlers.
The sustained operation has raised warnings from humanitarian groups of a deteriorating situation.
Doctors Without Borders accused the army of firing tear gas into a hospital, filling the emergency room with smoke and forcing emergency patients to be treated in a main hall.
The U.N.’s human rights chief said the scale of the operation "raises a host of serious issues with respect to international human rights norms and standards, including protecting and respecting the right to life."
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.
"At the end of day the refugee camp emerged victorious," refugee camp resident Dabbayah said, calling it "a great victory for the people of Jenin."