2 Palestinians killed by Israel; military alleges ambush

This is a locator map of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. (AP Photo) (Uncredited, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JERUSALEM – Two Palestinians were killed and a third was wounded by Israeli army fire in the occupied West Bank early Friday, Palestinian health officials said, as conflicting claims about the incident emerged.

The shooting near the city of Nablus, the West Bank's second largest, was the latest sign of escalation in recent months.

The Israeli military said troops at an army post south of Nablus opened fire after being shot at from a passing car. It said troops identified two suspicious vehicles and responded with live fire, reporting “hits.” The army did not specify whether this referred to people in the cars being killed or wounded.

An armed group, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, portrayed the incident as an attack and said its fighters were involved, but was short on specifics. The group is an offshoot of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party. The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Ishtayyeh, claimed the two men were killed in cold blood, but did not provide evidence.

The Palestinian Health Ministry identified those killed as two men from the Askar refugee camp near Nablus, ages 47 and 35. Ishtayyeh said they worked for the Civil Defense, a department in the Palestinian self-rule government that includes firefighters and other emergency services workers.

The shooting came three days after Israeli forces raided a stronghold of a small armed group in Nablus, blowing up a bomb lab and engaging in a firefight. Five Palestinians were killed at the time, including a leader of the militia, which calls itself Lions' Den.

Ongoing Israeli arrest raids in the West Bank pose a serious challenge to Abbas' Palestinian Authority. Abbas relies on security cooperation with Israel, particularly against his Islamic militant rivals, to remain in power. At the same time, this cooperation is deeply unpopular among Palestinians who chafe against Israel’s open-ended occupation, now in its 56th year.

Younger Palestinians are particularly disillusioned. Small bands of gunmen have formed in some areas, first in the Jenin refugee camp, a stronghold of militants, and now in Nablus. These groups challenge the Palestinian Authority and carry out attacks against Israeli targets.

More than 125 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year. The fighting has surged since a series of Palestinian attacks killed 19 people in Israel in the spring. The Israeli army says most of the Palestinians killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in confrontations have also been killed.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and has built more than 130 settlements there, many of which resemble small towns, with apartment blocks, shopping malls and industrial zones. The Palestinians want the West Bank to form the main part of their future state. Most countries view the settlements as a violation of international law.