RAMALLAH/ TEL AVIV:
Israeli troops martyred at least four Hamas members in gun battles during raids on Sunday against one of the group's cells in the occupied West Bank, an Israeli military spokesperson said.
Israeli officials have long voiced concern that Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, intends to gain strength in the West Bank and challenge its rival there, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA), heightening security risks for Israel.
The incidents in the early hours of Sunday marked the most serious confrontations between Israel and Hamas in the West Bank in months and threatened to raise tensions in the territory and along the Israeli border with Gaza.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party lost control of Gaza to Hamas in internal fighting in 2007, accused Israel in a statement of "field executions against our people".
Hamas called on Palestinians in the West Bank "to escalate resistance against the occupier in all areas" in the wake of the raids. A Hamas spokesperson said all the men were members of the group, which Israel and the West regard as a terrorist organisation.
An Israeli military spokesperson said troops carried out five raids in the West Bank "in order to stop a Hamas terrorist organisation cell from operating" and launching attacks.
The Palestinian health ministry said four Palestinians had been killed in two shootouts in the central and northern West Bank.
En route to New York, where he addresses the UN General Assembly on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the operation was aimed against Hamas men "about to carry out terrorist attacks".
He said the Israeli forces had "engaged the enemy, and we back them completely".
Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in a 1967 war. It withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
The PA, which seeks a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, exercises limited self-rule in the territory under interim peace deals with Israel.
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