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As Israel winds down West Bank offensive, rockets from Gaza raise risk of fighting on new front

JENIN, West Bank (AP) – The Israeli military began withdrawing troops from a militant stronghold in the occupied West Bank late Tuesday, security officials said, winding down an intense two-day operation that killed at least 13 Palestinians, drove thousands from their homes and left a wide swath of damage in its wake. One Israeli soldier was killed.

But sporadic fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants continued in parts of the Jenin refugee camp, delaying the pullout. The army said a soldier was killed in fighting late Tuesday, but gave no further details.

Just after midnight, residents in the Jenin refugee camp said the army had left the area, and people began returning to the streets. There was no immediate confirmation from the military.

Adding to the tensions, the army said militants in the Gaza Strip launched five rockets into Israel. It said all of the rockets were intercepted, but the launches raised the risk of fighting on a second front. Israel typically responds to rocket fire with airstrikes on targets in Gaza.

The developments came hours after a Hamas militant rammed his car into a crowded Tel Aviv bus stop and began stabbing people, wounding eight, including a pregnant woman who reportedly lost her baby. The attacker was killed by an armed bystander. Hamas said the attack was revenge for the Israeli offensive.

Earlier Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated the West Bank operation, one of the most intense in the territory in nearly two decades, was nearing its end. But he vowed to carry out similar offensives in the future.

“At these moments we are completing the mission, and I can say that our extensive operation in Jenin is not a one-off,” he said.

As the pullout was getting underway, the Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike targeting a militant cell located in a cemetery. It said the gunmen threatened forces moving out of the camp. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Israeli and Palestinian officials also reported fighting near a hospital in Jenin late Tuesday. An Associated Press reporter on the ground could hear explosions and the sound of gunfire. Palestinian hospital officials told the official Wafa news agency that three civilians were hit by Israeli fire.

Israel struck the camp, known as a bastion of Palestinian militants, early Monday in an operation it said was aimed at destroying and confiscating weapons. Palestinian health officials said 13 Palestinians had been killed and dozens wounded.

Big military bulldozers tore through alleyways, leaving heavy damage to roads and buildings, and thousands of residents fled the camp. People said electricity and water were knocked out. The army says the bulldozers were necessary because roads were booby-trapped with explosives.

The military said it had confiscated thousands of weapons, bomb-making materials and caches of money. Weapons were found in militant hideouts and civilian areas alike, in one case beneath a mosque, the military said.

The large-scale raid comes amid a more than yearlong spike in violence that has created a challenge for Netanyahu’s far-right government, which is dominated by ultranationalists who have called for tougher action against Palestinian militants only to see the fighting worsen.

Over 140 Palestinians have been killed this year in the West Bank, and Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis have killed at least 25 people, including a shooting last month that killed four settlers.

Israeli soldiers drive an APC out of the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, during an Israeli military raid on the militant stronghold of the Jenin refugee camp on Tuesday. PHOTO: AP