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Explained: What’s happening in the Palestinian city of Jenin, and why is Israel targeting it?

The Israel Defense Forces launched a major military operation in the northern West Bank city on Monday morning, with eight Palestinian militants killed and more than 50 reportedly wounded. Here’s what we know

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the Israel Defense Forces launched an operation against Palestinian militants in the West Bank city of Jenin.

While nightly raids have become commonplace in the West Bank in the past year, this was exceptional. For only the second time since the end of the second intifada in 2005 – and the second time in the last two weeks – the army carried out airstrikes before sending in ground troops.

Around 2,000 Israeli soldiers are currently engaged in an arrest operation in the city, and the army has warned that the operation could last several days.

An expanded attack on the West Bank is reminiscent of the dark days of the second intifada, but also augurs the potential start of a darker phase for the northern West Bank.

What has happened so far in Jenin?

At around 1 A.M., Israeli airstrikes targeted a building in Jenin that the army said was being used by militants to plan attacks. This was swiftly followed by an infantry incursion.

Palestinian factions in the area said they were acting against the troops and deployed explosive devices against army vehicles. One Israeli soldier was lightly injured.

The operation continued long into daybreak, with Israel saying it had raided a “unified command center” for the Jenin Brigades in the city’s refugee camp, where militants from different factions would gather to coordinate and prepare for attacks.

Israeli bulldozers were also filmed destroying streets, while Palestinian residents reported electricity blackouts for several hours.

The Israeli army says its current priority is collecting weapons in Jenin refugee camp. So far, 20 Palestinians have been arrested, while a laboratory for manufacturing explosives and parts of a rocket launcher were also seized.

The Palestinian Health Ministry has already reported eight deaths and at least 50 more wounded, 10 critically, with the operation still unfolding.

What is the backdrop to the raid?

Israel has been operating across cities in the West Bank, nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority, since a spike in Palestinian attacks against soldiers and civilians over the last year.

In recent weeks, a series of lethal army raids in the West Bank, rampant settler violence and Palestinian shooting attacks against Israelis have left the situation even more precarious.

As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners have been ramping up pressure on the security establishment to launch a large-scale operation in the northern West Bank.

The army’s deployment of an Apache helicopter and armed drones in Jenin in recent weeks has signaled a marked escalation in the war against the militants.

Since the start of the year, 135 Palestinians and 24 Israelis have been killed. That death toll is one of the highest since 2005, which saw the end of the second intifada – half a decade of sustained fighting that included Israeli ground invasions and airstrikes on Palestinian territory, and a growing militarization of Palestinian opposition, including suicide bombings.

Israel argues that such operations are necessary to prevent terror attacks, while Palestinians say an open-ended and intensifying occupation with no horizon for political resolution makes such violence inevitable.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant commented on the army’s activity, saying “The forces are working with a concentrated effort against the centers of terrorism in Jenin. We will take an offensive approach against terrorism – anyone who harms the citizens of Israel will pay a heavy price.”

What is unique about Jenin?

Alongside the city – the third largest in the West Bank – the densely crowded refugee camp is home to hundreds of fighters from militant groups including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Fatah, as well as some 14,000 Palestinians (either refugees or descendants of those displaced from their homes in British Mandatory Palestine in 1948).

Along with Nablus about an hour to the south, the city of Jenin has become the epicenter of Israeli raids over the last year. Dogged by a lack of capability and legitimacy, the Palestinian Authority has left a power vacuum in the two cities that have led to the emergence of local militant groups.

The fighters in the camps are armed with weapons smuggled into the West Bank or stolen from Israeli forces. Two homemade rockets were also fired from the area last week.

“The Jenin Camp is a terrorist stronghold,” read a tweet from the IDF early Monday morning. “We will not stand by idly while terrorists continue to harm civilians using Jenin Camp as a hideout.”

During the second intifada, Jenin became known to Israelis as the “capital of the suicide bombers,” with Israel saying that about 30 terror attacks were committed by people from the city. This led to the 2002 Battle of Jenin, during which Israeli forces bombarded and invaded the refugee camp. More than 20 Israelis and 50 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, which looms large in both the local and national Palestinian consciousness.

Could the escalation spread to other fronts?

Rallies in solidarity with Jenin have already been held across the West Bank, including in Askar refugee camp in Nablus and the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. In clashes at Beit-El checkpoint near Ramallah, a 21-year-old man was shot dead by the Israeli army.

In anticipation of retaliatory rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, the army has already bolstered its missile defense system in southern Israel.

In a fierce condemnation, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza together called for West Bank residents to protect Jenin.

While Islamic Jihad said in a separate statement that “all options are on the table,” it is not yet clear if the two groups are willing to get dragged into a wider confrontation.

The Associated Press, Reuters, Jonathan Shamir, Jack Khoury and Yaniv Kubovich contributed to this report.

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