By Ali Sawafta
JENIN, West Bank (Reuters) -Angry crowds in Jenin confronted senior Palestinian Authority officials at a funeral on Wednesday as fury boiled over at the weakness of their response to one of the largest Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank in years.
The two-day operation, which the Israeli military said targeted infrastructure and weapons depots of militant factions in the Jenin refugee camp, left a trail of wrecked streets and burned-out cars and sparked fury across the Arab world.
At least 12 Palestinians were killed and around 100 wounded in an incursion that began with late-night drone strikes, followed by a sweep involving more than 1,000 Israeli troops.
One Israeli soldier was also killed during the operation.
At a funeral for 10 of the dead, three senior leaders of the Palestinian Authority – the body that exercises nominal governance over parts of the West Bank – were forced to leave after being confronted with a crowd of thousands, including dozens of gunmen, chanting “Get out! Get out!”
Following the withdrawal of the Israeli force on Tuesday evening, leaders of Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad and other armed factions claimed victory, and the mood among residents returning home to the camp appeared defiant.
“They did not get what they wanted, thank God. The youths are fine, the families are fine, and the camp is fine,” Mutasem Estatia, a father of six, told Reuters after what he described as two nights being kept away, one of them in Israeli detention.
“There are 12 martyrs and we are proud of them, but we expected more damage given the raid’s scale.”
Israeli forces detained 150 suspected militants, seized caches of guns and roadside mines – including an arsenal under a mosque – and destroyed a command centre, the army said. It said all the Palestinians killed were armed fighters. Islamic Jihad and Hamas claimed only five of the dead as members.
As the troops withdrew overnight, Israel reported a volley of rockets from the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory. The rockets were shot down and Israel’s air force struck targets in Gaza belonging to the ruling Hamas, causing no casualties.
In a further sign of violence spilling over from Jenin, a Palestinian rammed his car into pedestrians in Tel Aviv and went on a stabbing spree, wounding eight people before he was shot dead. Hamas claimed him as a member.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Tuesday the Jenin operation was unlikely to be a “one-off” and said it would be “the beginning of regular incursions and continuous control of the territory”.
In turn, the spokesman for the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad, said “every alley and street will soon turn into clashes and fighting fields.”
PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY WEAKNESS
The scale of the Israeli operation, one of the biggest in 20 years, pointed to the growing strength of the militant groups in Jenin, where Israel estimates almost half the population is affiliated to Islamic Jihad or to Hamas, which rules Gaza.
It also underlined the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, set up some 30 years ago after the Oslo peace accords, which has been unable to impose itself against either Israel or militant groups in Jenin or nearby Nablus.
Both cities have been traditional centres of Palestinian resistance, but their position has become more pronounced as a wave of violence has swept the West Bank over the past two years.
In Jenin, footage circulating on social media showed hundreds gathered in the early hours of the morning in front of the heavily protected offices of the Palestinian Authority governor, throwing rocks at the 5-metre-high walls.
Israel has been fiercely critical of the Palestinian Authority and its 87-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, accusing them of failing to rein in the militant groups. PA officials in turn say Israel has made it impossible to exert any control by keeping them deliberately weak and undermining their authority.
Surveys show almost 80% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign but in the absence of any designated successor and with no elections held for almost 20 years, it remains unclear who might replace him.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Conor Humprhries)
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