(photo credit: )
Five Palestinians were killed on Thursday and two soldiers wounded, one moderately, during fierce gun battles and clashes in Nablus where Operation Northern Lights continued.
Four of the dead were identified as senior members of the Fatah Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, including Muhammad Shtewi, 33, who was responsible for numerous shootings in which soldiers were killed.
According to security officials, in recent months Shtewi had maintained close contacts with Hizbullah operatives in Lebanon, had purchased weapons and carried out shootings and bombings.
OC Samaria Col. Yuval Bazak told The Jerusalem Post that Shtewi shot and killed paratrooper company commander Capt. Shahar Ben-Yishai in the Balata refugee camp in May 2004. He was also involved in fatal shootings on the trans-Samaria highway, including the shooting on January 5, 2005 in which Sgt. Yossi Attiah and Lt. Ariel Bouda were killed, Bazak said.
Acting on intelligence on Shtewi's location, paratroopers surrounded a building in Balata. As the soldiers approached, Shtewi and his aides, Hassan Fathi Hajaj, 26, and Muhammad Hamis Amar, 36, opened fire and threw grenades at them, wounding two soldiers.
Minutes later the three were shot and killed.
The moderately wounded soldier, who suffered a broken leg, was airlifted to the Rabin Medical Center's Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva, and the second soldier, who suffered a hand wound, was taken by ambulance.
Searching the building, soldiers found grenades, a Kalashnikov rifle, an M16 rifle and an M203 rifle with an attached grenade launcher.
Since the operation began on Saturday night, eight Palestinians have been killed and scores wounded. Security forces have arrested 13 fugitives affiliated with Fatah and Islamic Jihad.
Another Aksa Martyrs Brigade member, Naim Abu Saris, 24, was killed while shooting at troops earlier in the day. Muhammad Ali Saidi, 17, was shot and killed while throwing firebombs at troops, Bazak said.
He sharply rejected claims by international relief organizations, including the Physicians for Human Rights organization, which accused soldiers of firing indiscriminately at relief workers. Physicians for Human Rights said three of the wounded Palestinians were relief workers, and in one instance soldiers pulled one of them out of an ambulance.
"I would like to stress that under no circumstances were shots fired by soldiers at medical teams or ambulance drivers. I checked the claims myself, and in one instance discovered that one of the wounded Palestinians who they claimed was an ambulance driver was a fugitive called Wa'el Amar," Bazak said.
Soldiers entered the hospital where Amar was taken and took him for treatment in Israel, Bazak said.
The IDF operation was launched in response to the increased terror threats stemming from Nablus refugee camp, where fugitives affiliated with the Fatah and Islamic Jihad have joined forces. Dubbed a hotbed of terror, four explosive belts manufactured in the city were caught at checkpoints in recent weeks. Earlier in the week, security forces blew up a bomb factory found hidden in a building.
"Our goal is to harm the terror organizations' capabilities and their motivation," Bazak said. "So far we have succeeded, but people should be aware that we are talking about a battle zone. Soldiers operating in the city in recent days have come under constant gunfire."
Elsewhere, a bomb was detonated near a car traveling south of Yabed, west of Jenin. No one was wounded. In early morning raids, security forces arrested eight fugitives in villages near Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah. One Fatah Tanzim fugitive arrested in Ramallah was identified as Rushdi Salem, who the army said was involved in a number of shootings in recent months.