JERUSALEM — The Israeli military on Friday raided a Palestinian town in the northern West Bank, besieging an apartment and sparking a gunfight with local militants that killed an apparently uninvolved Palestinian teacher, Palestinian health officials and the man's family said.
The raid was the latest in a series of Israeli army actions in the occupied territory that have resulted in a high Palestinian death toll.
Israeli security forces stormed into a town near Tubas, northeast of the Palestinian city of Nablus, and surrounded a house where militants were believed to be holed up. Israeli soldiers called on the wanted militants through loudspeakers to surrender, residents said.
When the gunmen refused, the Israeli military launched soldier-fired missiles and grenades at the building to try to force them out. Videos showed giant plumes of smoke billowing from the apartment.
But the gunmen refused to surrender themselves and managed to flee the wrecked house, the local branch of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group claimed. “Our fighters provided cover with heavy fire to break the siege on the house and allow our brothers to withdraw safely from the area," the group said in a congratulatory message to its members.
The Israeli army said it searched the hide-out and found improvised explosive devices in a children's room, along with other military equipment like high-capacity gun magazines. It said its forces arrested two suspects in the town of Aqaba near Tubas, without specifying whether they were the wanted militants in the besieged building.
The 36-year-old Palestinian teacher, Abdulrahim Ghannam, was killed during the firefight as he walked home to his wife after spending the early morning tending to his sheep and vegetables at his farm, his 33-year-old cousin Islam said.
Ghannam worked as an eighth grade English teacher at a school in the area, Islam added, declining to give his own last name for fear of reprisals. He said Ghannam avoided politics as much as he could and had no connection to the local armed group.
The Israeli army said it was not specifically aware of Ghannam's situation but that soldiers reported they killed one Palestinian who they identified as a gunman. The contradictory accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
The Palestinian Health Ministry blamed Israel for his death, saying that an Israeli army bullet struck Ghannam in the head.
Ghannam was buried a few hours later. During the funeral, scores of Palestinians streamed through the streets chanting against Israel as they held his body aloft, wrapped in a Palestinian national flag rather than that of a Palestinian political or militant faction.
Palestinian presidential spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh issued a statement Friday about the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank, condemning Israel's “incursions into Palestinian cities, villages and towns, and the detention of hundreds of Palestinians, all of which aim to try to drag the territory into a spiral of violence.”
The Israeli army said early Friday that it also raided several other towns in the West Bank and the city of Nablus, arresting seven suspected militants.
The near-daily military raids have fueled tensions in the region and have ushered in some of the worst fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank since the last Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s.
Over 180 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and east Jerusalem since the start of the year, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and those not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.
Some 31 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis during that time. On Thursday, a Palestinian driver rammed into an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank, killing an Israeli soldier who had migrated from Ukraine.
Israel says the raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks. Palestinians say the raids undermine their security forces, inspire more militancy and entrench Israeli control over lands they seek for a hoped-for future state.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.