JERUSALEM – Responding to the first suicide bombing in nearly five months, Israeli forces backed by attack helicopters and armored vehicles pushed into the West Bank city of Tulkarm and arrested several suspected militants, authorities said Wednesday.
The troops also were involved with a shootout that a Palestinian official said left one Palestinian police officer dead and another critically wounded.
Separately, Israel sealed off Jewish settlements slated for evacuation in the Gaza Strip, a closure that officials said would remain in effect until the end of the pullout, which is due to begin in a month. Israeli officials called it a necessary measure to prevent activists from flooding the area and disrupting the withdrawal plans through protests or violence.
The army’s sweep through Tulkarm came as another victim of Tuesday’s suicide bombing outside a shopping mall in the city of Netanya died of her wounds, raising the death toll to four. Several dozen bystanders were injured.
Military sources said Israeli forces arrested five suspected members of Islamic Jihad in Tulkarm. The radical Palestinian group had claimed responsibility both for the Netanya blast and for a failed car bombing minutes before in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Shavei Shomron. Israel said the men also had been involved in a Feb. 25 suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv nightclub.
During the raid, Israeli soldiers found themselves under fire from Palestinian gunmen and shot back, hitting at least one of them, the army said. The soldiers were slightly injured.
The suspected gunmen, however, turned out to be Palestinian police officers, said Izzeddin Sharif, the governor of the Tulkarm area. One of the officers was killed; the other remained on life-support systems. The circumstances surrounding the shootout were not immediately clear.
Tulkarm had been turned over to Palestinian control four months ago. Criticizing the Israeli incursion as unnecessary, Sharif insisted that the Palestinian security services had the city under tight rein.
“They have nothing to do here,” Sharif said of the Israeli military, which is expected to occupy Tulkarm for the next few days. “There is no need for them to stay.”