BIDDU, Palestinian Territories: An Israeli operation to dismantle a Hamas cell in the West Bank sparked fierce gun battles at multiple locations Sunday, killing four Palestinians and seriously wounding two Israeli soldiers, official sources said.
The Palestinian health ministry confirmed a total of four deaths from Israeli gunfire, including one in Burqin near Jenin and three more in the Biddu area comprising several villages between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
An AFP photographer saw heavy blood stains in the village of Beit Annan, in the Biddu area.
Israeli army spokesman Amnon Shefler gave the same death toll to AFP, adding that the fatalities were Hamas fighters killed during a joint Israeli operation to apprehend "terrorists."
An army statement said two of its soldiers were "seriously injured" from Palestinian gunfire in Burqin and that the pair remained in hospital, without giving details on their wounds.
"The security forces took action overnight in Judea and Samaria against Hamas terrorists who were about to carry out terrorist attacks in real-time," said Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, referencing the biblical names used widely in Israel for the occupied West Bank.
Hamas confirmed its fighters had clashed with Israeli forces near Jerusalem and Jenin and said that at least one its members, Ahmad Zahran, was among those killed.
Hamas has controlled the Israeli-blockaded Gaza strip since 2007, but also has a strong presence in the West Bank, which is formally controlled by rival group Fatah.
Islamic Jihad, another Islamist militant group and the second strongest in Gaza, issued a statement identifying Osama Soboh as one of its "martyrs" who died in Burqin, praising his "heroism".
Hamas has responded to previous Israeli raids by launching air strikes at the Jewish state's territory.
Shefler said the operation targeting the Hamas cell -- involving the army and the Shin Bet domestic security agency -- began before midnight Saturday with an arrest near Jenin that did not result in clashes.
But he said "gunfire erupted" when Israeli forces descended on Burqin early Sunday to make an additional arrest, with a further exchange of fire in Biddu later Sunday.
Shefler described the operation as "ongoing" and that several arrests had been made.
Jenin has been a flashpoint through the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Four Palestinians were killed in the Jenin refugee camp during clashes last month.
Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six-Day War of 1967.