Can US compel Israel to prioritize civilian protection and aid as Gaza truce gives way to renewed hostilities?

Analysis Can US compel Israel to prioritize civilian protection and aid as Gaza truce gives way to renewed hostilities?
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Updated 02 December 2023
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Can US compel Israel to prioritize civilian protection and aid as Gaza truce gives way to renewed hostilities?

Can US compel Israel to prioritize civilian protection and aid as Gaza truce gives way to renewed hostilities?
  • Israeli government faces pressure from Washington to have “clear plan” to protect civilians, avoid displacement and damage
  • War scholars say goal of destroying Hamas unrealistic, may prove impossible without very high civilian toll

LONDON: Just hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel to prioritize civilians in its campaign against the Palestinian group Hamas, the Israeli military marked the end of a fragile truce in the Gaza Strip with renewed aerial bombardment.

By Saturday morning, 200 Palestinians had been killed, according to Hamas-run health ministry officials, as Israeli forces launched attacks on the Khan Younis area in southern Gaza, where it claimed to have targeted more than 50 Hamas sites.

The Israeli military said overall it hit more than 400 targets across the Gaza Strip, including strikes in the north, which suggested that no place in the besieged enclave was safe anymore.

Some 2 million people — almost Gaza’s entire population — poured into the territory’s south after Israel asked Palestinian civilians to relocate from other places at the military campaign’s start.

The question many were asking on Saturday was whether the Israel War Cabinet would heed the call of America’s top diplomat to have “a clear plan in place” for protecting civilians and avoid further mass displacement and damage to critical infrastructure, like hospitals, power stations and water facilities.




The Israeli military said overall it hit more than 400 targets across the Gaza Strip since the end of the truce. (AP/File)

Blinken’s comments, meant perhaps to shield the Biden administration from fresh criticism both at home and abroad, have left opinions divided among experts in war studies and geopolitics.

Tobias Borck, senior research fellow for Middle East security at RUSI, suspects that world leaders knew what was coming next after hearing those words, spoken to reporters in Jerusalem and Dubai.

“Blinken’s comments were made in anticipation of the truce coming to an end. This was the sense in Washington but also among the mediators, Egypt and Qatar,” he told Arab News.

“The option of a permanent ceasefire just did not seem viable to the Israeli government, which still felt it had a lot to do militarily. So, for Blinken the objective was to frame what came next, and was intended to show that the US was repositioning itself and making clear what its expectations were.”

Initially pegged as a four-day humanitarian pause to allow for the exchange of hostages by Hamas for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including many minors held in Israeli prisons without trial, the ceasefire lasted a week thanks to two extensions brokered by Qatar and Egypt.

After the end of the truce, militants in Gaza resumed firing rockets into Israel, and fighting also broke out between Israel and Hezbollah militants operating along its northern border with Lebanon, according to an Associated Press report.

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With 110 of the 240 hostages taken by Hamas returned, the Israeli military announced officially that the truce was broken, saying it had intercepted rockets fired from Gaza a little after 6 a.m. on Friday morning.

The military subsequently dropped leaflets in densely populated parts of southern Gaza urging residents to leave, indicating an imminent widening of the offensive, and noting that Khan Younis was a “dangerous battle zone.”

As per reports, Blinken told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that were fighting to continue, Israel would need to find more effective measures for protecting civilians.

This meant acting in “compliance with international humanitarian law” and provision of “every possible measure to avoid civilian harm.” He also emphasized the need for “sustaining and building on humanitarian assistance getting to Gaza.”

While criticizing Hamas for a deadly attack in occupied Jerusalem on Thursday and the renewed rocket strikes, Blinken alluded to the leaflets and Israel’s publishing of an interactive map detailing safe sites for civilians to relocate to.




Israeli soldiers work on armored military vehicles along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. (AP)

Released on social media and in Arabic, the Israeli military tweeted that the map “divides the territory of Gaza into zones according to recognizable areas. This enables the residents of Gaza to orient themselves and to evacuate from specific places for their safety if required.”

Sources linked to aid efforts in Gaza, however, rubbished the idea, one telling Arab News that aid blockages probably meant little fuel was available, leaving most people unable to charge devices to even see such a map.

Borck said a central problem when it came to the protection of civilians concerned merging of the political objective, “namely, destroying Hamas,” with the military objective, and in turn trying to ascertain whether there was a wider strategy beyond this.

“The purported aim, destroying Hamas, is a pretty maximalist one, both in the political sense and the military sense,” he said.

“But you must ask what it means by destroying Hamas. Does the killing of Mohammed Deif and Yahiya Sinwar, the two considered to have masterminded the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, achieve the objective? If so, you need look only to the hunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for a potential time scale.”

Oubai Shahbandar, a former Middle East defense adviser at the Pentagon, believes that in seeking to achieve its stated objective, Israel’s military will not be satisfied with simply “decapitating” the Hamas leadership hierarchy.

Rather, the intention is likely to ensure that Hamas’ capacity to put up any major asymmetrical military challenge is “totally degraded.” However, he said such a course of action was likely to play into Hamas’ hands.

“Sinwar probably had no illusions about the Israeli response to what happened on Oct. 7,” Shahbandar said.

“There aren’t any real signs that Netanyahu is going to seriously curtail the scope of airstrikes, artillery strikes and infantry assaults into southern Gaza to match the requests coming from the Biden White House.”




Some 2 million people — almost Gaza’s entire population — poured into the territory’s south. (AP)

President Biden himself warned in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas it would be smart were Israel to learn from the mistakes the US had made in hunting the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

That warning, though, had another meaning for Borck: the US, among numerous allies of Israel, was urging Netanyahu to think about “the day after Day 1,” specifically about where it wanted to be when the war ended, adding this was pivotal for Gaza’s civilian population.

Michael Pregent, a former US intelligence officer and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said Blinken’s demands were not a “serious ask” but reflected the opinion of a swathe of the international community.

He argues that there is a certain impossibility in minimizing civilian casualties, adding that Hamas is following a playbook he saw in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, where groups with similar ideologies “invited civilian death” as it earned them capital in the international news media.

He also noted that in response to similar tactics adopted by Daesh in Iraq, the US itself ended up decimating more than 80 percent of the city of Mosul in its nine-month campaign to rout the militants beginning in October 2016.

INNUMBERS

• 170 People killed in Gaza since resumption of fighting.

• 14,800 People killed in Gaza since start of Israeli assault.

• 136 Hostages seized by Hamas on Oct. 7 still in Gaza.

Asked whether greater thought ought to be put into forging strategies in response to attacks like that of Oct. 7, and in general the threat posed by Hamas and its militant allies to both Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike, Pregent said one option was to exhort the people of Gaza to reject Hamas. But history showed that it did not work, he said.

“One need only look at Afghanistan, where the Taliban is back. Groups such as the Taliban and Hamas are familiar with the precedents. They tell civilians, ‘You support an uprising, but our opponents will eventually leave and we will still be here. And when they go, we will be back and we will kill you and your whole family.’”

Significantly, during his meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken said the US remained committed to supporting Israel’s right to self-defense and assured him that he could count on US support.

The Biden administration has rejected calls for a long-term ceasefire and backed Israel’s fight to remove Hamas from power in Gaza with no “red lines” as it were that would trigger US penalties.

Despite the US emphasis on protection of civilians, the Wall Street Journal reported that Washington had disclosed little about how many and what types of weapons it had sent to Israel during the Gaza conflict.




Residents of Hamad Town residential complex in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, sit with some of their belongings as they flee their homes after an Israeli strike. (AFP)

“The arsenal of artillery, bombs and other weapons and military gear that have been used by the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya, among other places, usually target large groups of gathered enemy forces. In Gaza, by contrast, Israel is battling militants who are among civilians in dense urban environments,” the report said.

Against this backdrop, Shahbandar said history had repeatedly shown that Israel’s only realistic chance of dismantling Hamas as a military and political entity would not be found in the use of force.

“The way for Israel to achieve its aim is by helping to empower a Palestinian alternative to Hamas with real legitimacy,” he said. “But there seems very little appetite in the Netanyahu administration to pursue such a path.”

On Saturday, the International Rescue Committee, an aid group operating in Gaza, said the return of renewed fighting would “wipe out even the minimal relief” provided by the truce and “prove catastrophic for Palestinian civilians.”

Before the temporary truce took effect on Nov. 24, more than 13,300 Palestinians had been killed in Israel’s assault, roughly two-thirds of them women and minors, according to Gaza health officials.

The renewal of hostilities has also heightened concerns for the 136 Israelis and foreigners who are still held captive by Hamas and other militant groups.

Although little optimism concerning the fate of Gazans can be discerned in the immediate term, Borck said he saw a “sliver” of it in the future.




With 110 of the 240 hostages taken by Hamas returned, the Israeli military announced officially that the truce was broken. (AP)

Whereas the prevailing logic had been that the Middle East conflict could at best be “managed,” the past 54 days had “thoroughly dispelled that notion,” with governments in Washington, Paris and London, as well as Tel Aviv and Ramallah conscious now that it needed to end.

“Because of this recognition, I have been left slightly more confident we’ll see a resumption of work toward the two-state process,” Borck said.

“Look at the comments from Kier Starmer (UK opposition leader and odds-on favorite to win the next election) when he said Europe and the UK had given up on seeking peace in the Middle East because they felt it was too intractable.

“You sense, were he to become prime minister, this may lead to a change but, of course, he’s not as important as the person in the White House.”

Asked what he thought the agenda would be for the US when this war ends, Borck said that if Donald Trump returned, “all bets were off,” but were Biden to remain, he expected a greater focus on seeking peace, bringing the biggest win to Gaza’s embattled population.


Source close to Hezbollah says three fighters killed in Israel strike

Source close to Hezbollah says three fighters killed in Israel strike
Updated 57 min 50 sec ago
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Source close to Hezbollah says three fighters killed in Israel strike

Source close to Hezbollah says three fighters killed in Israel strike
  • Hezbollah said it had fired on several Israeli targets, including soldiers and spy equipment
  • The violence has killed at least 375 people in Lebanon

BEIRUT: Three Hezbollah fighters were killed Saturday in an Israeli strike on a house in southern Lebanon, a source close to the Iran-backed group told AFP.
“Three Hezbollah fighters were killed, and two others seriously wounded in an Israeli air strike on a house in the area of Al-Jebbayn,” the source, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported earlier on Saturday that “enemy aircraft carried out a strike targeting a house in Al-Jebbayn, and rescue teams were headed to the area.”
Hezbollah said it had fired on several Israeli targets, including soldiers and spy equipment.
Since Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel triggered war in Gaza, there have been near-daily cross-border exchanges of fire between the Israeli army and Hezbollah, a Hamas ally.
The violence has killed at least 375 people in Lebanon, mostly fighters but including 70 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
In northern Israel, 10 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed, according to the army.
In recent days, Hezbollah has intensified its attacks against Israeli military positions, with tensions across the Middle East surging.
On April 13, Iran, which supports both Hezbollah and Hamas, launched an unprecedented drone and missile attack on Israel in retaliation for a deadly April 1 air strike which levelled its consulate in Damascus.


Iran, Israel appear to pull back from brink as Gaza bombed again

Iran, Israel appear to pull back from brink as Gaza bombed again
Updated 20 April 2024
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Iran, Israel appear to pull back from brink as Gaza bombed again

Iran, Israel appear to pull back from brink as Gaza bombed again
  • Israel had warned it would hit back after Iran launched more than 300 missiles and drones a week ago
  • The Iran attack was itself in retaliation for an air strike widely blamed on Israel

TEHRAN: Iran has dismissed as akin to child’s play Israel’s reported retaliation for an unprecedented Iranian strike, as both sides on Saturday appeared to step back from wider conflict stemming from the war in Gaza.
However, a deadly blast at an Iraqi military base emphasized the high tensions which persist in the region, as did more deadly Israeli strikes in Gaza and intensifying clashes in the West Bank.
Fears have soared this month that escalating tit-for-tat attacks between Israel and Iran could tip over into a broader war in the Middle East.
Israel had warned it would hit back after Iran launched more than 300 missiles and drones a week ago in its first-ever direct attack on its arch enemy’s territory.
The Iran attack was itself in retaliation for an air strike — widely blamed on Israel — that levelled the Iranian consulate in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards on April 1.
The Israeli retaliation appeared to come on Friday, when Iranian media reported blasts in the central province of Isfahan.
Fars news agency reported “three explosions” close to Qahjavarestan, near Isfahan airport and the 8th Shekari army air base.
“What happened last night was no attack,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told NBC News.
“It was the flight of two or three quadcopters, which are at the level of toys that our children use in Iran,” he added.
“As long as there is no new adventure on behalf of the Israeli regime against Iran’s interests, we will have no response.”
Israeli officials have made no public comment on what — according to a senior US congressional source who spoke to AFP — were retaliatory Israeli strikes against Iran.
Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, said the reported Israeli strike had been “calibrated to avoid damage and further Iranian aggression.”
Iranian political expert Hamid Gholamzadeh said the incident in Isfahan, while “insignificant,” needs to be seen in the context of the “fight for balance of power” between the two countries.
“The region is on fire and an all-out war can be ignited any moment,” he said.
While tensions rose after the attack on Iran’s consulate, violence involving Iran-backed groups had already been surging across the Middle East since the outbreak of the Gaza war.
Officials in Iraq said one person was killed and eight wounded in an explosion at a military base south of Baghdad housing a coalition of pro-Iranian armed groups.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Since the Gaza war began, violence has also flared in the other occupied Palestinian territory, the West Bank.
The Israeli army said Saturday that its forces killed 10 militants and arrested eight other people during a 40-hour raid on a refugee camp in the northern West Bank.
The Palestinian health ministry said 11 people were wounded in the Israeli raid, including a paramedic who was shot trying to get to the wounded.
Israel has faced growing global opposition over its military offensive in Gaza, which has reduced vast areas of the besieged Palestinian territory to rubble, while aids groups have warned the north is on the brink of famine.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under pressure over the rising civilian toll, needs “further escalation and another war to distract the world attention” away from suffering in Gaza, Iranian analyst Gholamzadeh said.
There have been particular fears about Israel’s intention to send troops into the southernmost city of Rafah, where most of the population is now sheltering having fled violence elsewhere.
Foreign ministers of the G7 group of developed economies, meeting in Italy on Friday, said they opposed a “full-scale military operation in Rafah” because it would have “catastrophic consequences” for civilians.
But even without a full operation, the city has been under regular bombardment.
On Saturday, Gaza’s Civil Defense agency said an overnight Israeli strike in Rafah killed nine members of a family including six children.
Agency spokesman Mahmud Bassal said the Israeli army had also hit several other areas of Rafah overnight, adding: “It has been a very hard night.”
The war was triggered by an attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Israel has responded with a retaliatory offensive that has killed at least 34,049 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll from the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
Israel’s military said it struck dozens of militant targets over the past day, including the site in north Gaza from which a rocket was fired into the Israeli city of Sderot.
Witnesses in the central Nuseirat refugee camp said the Israeli army told them to evacuate one home, then several were destroyed.
“They instruct us to evacuate and return later, but where do we go back? To ruins?” asked resident Abu Ibrahim.
“How long will this farce continue?“
A UN report on Friday said “multiple obstacles” continue to impede delivery of urgently needed aid.
Despite some recent aid convoys being able to reach Gaza, the WFP cited “the real possibility of famine” in the north.
Efforts to seal a long sought-after truce have stalled, according to mediator Qatar.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a staunch critic of Israel’s war in Gaza, met with Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday, calling for unity among Palestinians.
After Washington vetoed a Palestinian bid to become a full UN member state earlier this week, president Mahmud Abbas said his West Bank-based Palestinian Authority would “reconsider” its relationship with the US.


Erdogan in mediation talks with Hamas leader amid domestic controversies

Erdogan in mediation talks with Hamas leader amid domestic controversies
Updated 20 April 2024
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Erdogan in mediation talks with Hamas leader amid domestic controversies

Erdogan in mediation talks with Hamas leader amid domestic controversies
  • The meeting ‘is part of president’s attempts to reposition himself as credible defender of Palestinian cause,’ analyst tells Arab News
  • Turkiye does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization, unlike Washington and Brussels

ANKARA: The meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Istanbul on Saturday has sparked debate over Turkiye’s attempts to play a greater mediating role for the Palestinian cause amid domestic controversies over the ruling government, which has lost support among its conservative electoral base since local elections last month.
Haniyeh’s visit is his first meeting with Erdogan in Turkiye since the start of the Israeli-Hamas conflict in Gaza.
For Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence in London, the meeting is part of Erdogan’s attempts to reposition himself as a credible defender of the Palestinian cause after his recent electoral defeat.
“Hosting the Hamas leader is likely to reinforce the impression in the West that Turkiye is at best a transactional partner, not an ally,” he said.
Turkiye does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization, unlike Washington and Brussels. The country has also strongly criticized Israel’s military operation in Gaza, which Erdogan previously described as genocide. Hamas also established a presence in Istanbul in 2011, although not on par with its political office in Doha.
Ankara has also been a major humanitarian donor to Gaza, alongside several Gulf states, and has actively helped several Palestinians from Gaza receive medical treatment in Turkish hospitals.
“I will continue to defend the Palestinian struggle and be the voice of the oppressed Palestinian people as long as Allah gives me life, even if I am left alone,” Erdogan said in his speech to parliament last Wednesday.
The Turkish president has always been on friendly terms with Haniyeh.
In a recent phone call to the Hamas leader, Erdogan offered his condolences after three of his sons were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza.
“Israel will definitely be held accountable before the law for the crimes against humanity it has committed,” Erdogan told Haniyeh, according to an AFP report.
For Betul Dogan Akkas, assistant professor of international relations at the department of international relations at Ankara University, given the current fragile situation in Gaza, there is a significant need for the mediation efforts by Qatar and Turkiye.
“With Haniyeh and other officials based in Qatar, there is now a more effective political bureau compared to the past. The current military balance in Gaza is very critical; they are cornered in Rafah. On the other hand, Hamas needs to build a more strategic power,” she told Arab News.
Akkas thinks that if this Saturday’s visit of Haniyeh contributes to further collaboration between Turkiye and Hamas to address that strategic power deficiency, it would be meaningful.
“Haniyeh could take on a more effective role due to Gaza’s current situation because they need a way out,” she added.
Domestically, however, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, has come under heavy criticism for its flourishing and uninterrupted trade with Israel, even during its military offensive in Gaza.
The AKP’s Islamist rival, the New Welfare Party or YRP, played this trade card during the local elections on March 31, highlighting Erdogan’s failure to halt economic ties with Israel despite his harsh rhetoric against the Jewish state.
The YRP accused the government of applying double standards by strongly criticizing Israel while continuing trade relations. After the elections, the YRP won some local administrations previously held by the AKP.
Turkiye’s exports to Israel exceeded $5.4 billion in 2023, accounting for 2.1 percent of its total exports, according to official data.
Following nationwide criticism, the Turkish Trade Ministry recently imposed restrictions on some 54 categories of exports to Israel, including cement, steel, machinery, construction materials, chemical compounds, and several metal products, and these restrictions are expected to remain in place until Israel declares a ceasefire in Gaza.
On April 16, Erdogan compared Hamas to Turkish independence fighters who resisted foreign occupiers during the liberation of the country and the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic in 1923.
His comments were seen as one of the most blatant endorsements by the Turkish leader since the start of the war in October.
According to Piccoli, while such words may play well with domestic audiences, they are unlikely to be welcomed in Western capitals, including Washington.
Erdogan will make his first official visit to the US since the election of President Joe Biden in 2020 on 9 May. The Palestinian cause is expected to feature in the talks.
Piccoli believes that Haniyeh’s visit is unlikely to lead to any concrete Turkish action against Israel.
“The economic restrictions and Haniyeh’s visit reflect Turkiye’s desire to ensure that the Gaza conflict is not overshadowed by tensions between Israel and Iran, including the Iranian attacks of April 13-14 and the Israeli strikes on Isfahan in the early hours of April 19,” he said.
Earlier this week, Erdogan blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel, Piccoli added.
On the other hand, how Turkiye will be able to mediate between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators is raising concerns, especially after Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Israel’s military actions in Gaza.
The fate of the hostages held by Hamas since Oct. 7 will also be a source of concern for such mediation efforts.
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan visited Qatar April 16-17 and met with Haniyeh and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al -Thani.
Turkiye was to host intense diplomatic negotiations on Saturday as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was also expected to travel to the country to discuss the situation in Gaza with Fidan.
For Piccoli, while the recent negotiations may go some way to assuaging domestic public anger, the Erdogan government’s outreach to Hamas is likely to reinforce the impression in the US and the EU that Turkiye is no longer aligned with the West and is now — at best — a potential partner rather than an ally.
For the moment, Erdogan has been cautious about commenting on his meeting with Haniyeh.
“We will keep the agenda between us and Mr.Haniyeh,” he said when questioned by journalists on Friday.


Palestinians to reconsider US ties after veto of bid for full UN membership, Abbas says

Palestinians to reconsider US ties after veto of bid for full UN membership, Abbas says
Updated 20 April 2024
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Palestinians to reconsider US ties after veto of bid for full UN membership, Abbas says

Palestinians to reconsider US ties after veto of bid for full UN membership, Abbas says
  • Washington vetoed a Palestinian request for full United Nations membership

CAIRO: The Palestinian Authority will reconsider bilateral relations with the US after Washington vetoed a Palestinian request for full United Nations membership, President Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview with the official WAFA news agency.


Israel says its forces kill 10 militants in West Bank raid

Israel says its forces kill 10 militants in West Bank raid
Updated 20 April 2024
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Israel says its forces kill 10 militants in West Bank raid

Israel says its forces kill 10 militants in West Bank raid
  • “Security forces eliminated 10 terrorists during encounters” over more than 40 hours, the army said
  • Eight soldiers and a police officer had been injured in the raid

TULKARM, Palestinian Territories: The Israeli army said Saturday that its security forces killed 10 militants in an ongoing raid around Nur Shams, a refugee camp in the north of the occupied West Bank.
“Security forces eliminated 10 terrorists during encounters” over more than 40 hours, the army said in a statement.
The army said eight soldiers and a police officer had been injured in the raid.
An AFP journalist in nearby Tulkarem heard gunshots and blasts coming from Nur Shams on Saturday.
Residents contacted by AFP said there was a power outage and food was running short in the camp, saying nobody was allowed to enter or leave.
Since early last year violence has flared across the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967. The violence has further escalated since the war in Gaza broke out on October 7.
Israeli forces say their frequent raids in the West Bank target Palestinian militants, but civilians are often among the dead.
Around 480 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops or settlers in the West Bank since the Hamas assault on Israel triggered the Gaza war, according to Palestinian official sources.