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Israeli soldier killed in West Bank as tensions rise over annexation push

The parents (center) of Israeli army Staff Sergeant Amit Ben Ygal grieved during his funeral in Beer Yaakov, Israel, Tuesday.
The parents (center) of Israeli army Staff Sergeant Amit Ben Ygal grieved during his funeral in Beer Yaakov, Israel, Tuesday.Ariel Schalit/Associated Press/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — A 21-year-old Israeli soldier was killed early Tuesday when he was struck in the head by a heavy rock as his unit was completing a nighttime arrest mission in a Palestinian village near Jenin, in the northern West Bank, the army said.

It was the first combat fatality for the Israeli military this year, and it came as the region was bracing for a possible uptick in violence in response to an Israeli push to annex land in the occupied West Bank that the Palestinians have long counted on for a future state.

Later in the day, a Palestinian man who attempted a stabbing attack at a checkpoint north of Jerusalem was shot and wounded, the Israeli police said.

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The overnight killing of the soldier, Staff Sergeant Amit Ben Ygal, of the city of Ramat Gan, occurred during what the army described as a routine operation that resulted in the arrest of four Palestinians in Yaabed, west of Jenin, including some suspected of throwing stones at passing Israeli motorists. The soldier was hit by a rock thrown from a house on the outskirts of the village, the army said.

He was wearing a helmet, but it did not save him.

A hunt was underway for his killer on Tuesday, and the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, reported that Israeli forces were raiding homes in Yaabed and had arrested seven additional people by around noon.

An Israeli Army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said, “We have a good assessment of who it is, and it’s just a matter of time before they will be apprehended.”

The mayor of Yaabed, Saed Zaid Kilani, said later that Israeli forces had arrested an entire family living in the home from which it was believed the rock had been thrown at Ben Ygal.

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Conricus described Yaabed as “a known hot spot of terrorists and sympathizers and supporters of terrorist activity — and lots of stone throwing.” Palestinian officials said militants representing Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and rival factions claimed many supporters in the area.

On a Facebook Live video at midday, Israeli forces could be seen detaining a woman and firing a large round of tear gas toward residents and journalists.

Kilani said that several residents had been shot with rubber bullets by Israeli forces searching for the killer.

He added that Israeli troops had been in Yaabed, a town of about 20,000, repeatedly over the past week and had clashed with residents each time, firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

The Israeli military did not provide details about why the four Palestinians had been arrested but described the mission as the sort of operation that is conducted by security forces almost every night.

Kamel Abu Shamleh, a member of the municipal council, said that two of his sons had been taken away after his home was raided by about 10 soldiers at 4 a.m., as his family was eating its Ramadan predawn meal before fasting for the day. He said it was the first time that they had been arrested and that the soldiers had not given a reason.

Abu Shamleh said that he had called the Red Cross and another humanitarian group out of concern that his sons might be harmed while in Israeli custody in reprisal for Sergeant Ben Ygal’s killing.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has said that he wants to annex West Bank land, a long-held dream of the Israeli right, as soon as July. That will be among the subjects covered during a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday. But opponents of annexation have warned that annexation could ignite a new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The killing of Ben Ygal appeared to stoke tensions, at a minimum. A grisly video showing a trail of blood leading from the spot where he was struck was shared thousands of times on Palestinian social media Tuesday morning.

In Gaza, Hamas praised the killing, and Ibrahim al-Madhoun, an analyst close to the militant group, wrote on Twitter and Telegram, “The annexation policy in the West Bank will be confronted by intense resistance — rock, knife, gun, explosion.”

In the early afternoon Tuesday, a Palestinian man was shot and wounded by Israeli security officers at the Qalandiya checkpoint, north of Jerusalem. Israeli police said that he had run at one of the security officers wielding a screwdriver as a weapon but that he was shot before harming anyone.

Israel had not lost a soldier in the West Bank since August, when a 19-year-old student who had technically enlisted but was still studying in a yeshiva was stabbed to death near his school. The last combat soldier killed, in March 2019, was guarding a hitchhiking station near the settlement city of Ariel.

The killing on Tuesday was reminiscent of that of Ronen Lubarsky, a soldier in an elite combat unit who was struck in the head and fatally wounded by a heavy slab that broke his helmet in May 2018 in the Amari refugee camp near Ramallah.

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In a wrenching radio interview Tuesday morning, Ben Ygal’s father, Baruch, recalled how his son, phoning home from a high school trip to concentration camps in Poland that is a rite of passage for Israeli youngsters, had pleaded for permission to enlist as a combat soldier.

“I said to him, ‘Amit, my precious, you’re my only child, understand the significance.’ He said, ‘Dad, we have no other country. We have no other country.’ ”

Ben Ygal added: “I’m broken and shattered now.”