HEBRON, West Bank (AP) — Thousands of mourners attended the funerals Wednesday of three suspected Palestinian militants who were killed in an Israeli army raid in the West Bank the day before.
The three were jihadi Salafis, or followers of a militant stream of puritanical Islam, and had planned attacks on Israelis and on the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian self-rule government in the West Bank, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman.
Lerner said the group had started putting together a terrorist infrastructure, including assembling weapons and explosives. He said the cell was the "first substantial indication" of violent activity by jihadi Salafis in the West Bank.
A Palestinian security official said jihadi Salafis in the West Bank are a cause of concern, but declined to give an estimate on how many there are.
Jihadi Salafis are on the rise in the Gaza Strip, which is run by the Islamic militant Hamas. The trend opposes Hamas as too pragmatic because it has observed cease-fires with Israel and has stopped short of imposing Islamic religious law, or Shariah, in Gaza.
In the West Bank, Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have cracked down on Islamic militants, particularly Hamas. Palestinian security have closed Hamas-linked institutions and arrested hundreds of Hamas activists since the group seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007.
The three alleged members of the West Bank cell were killed late Tuesday near the city of Hebron.
Lerner said Israeli special forces stopped the car the three were riding in and shot out the tires. He said the men in the car acted suspiciously and that soldiers opened fire, killing two, while the third escaped on foot. The fugitive was later killed in a hideout several kilometers (miles) away, Lerner said.
Palestinians identified the three killed as Mohammed Nairouh, 29, Mahmoud al-Najjar, 23, and Moussa Makhamreh, 22.
Palestinian security forces previously had attempted to arrest the three, but they escaped, said Nairouh's brother Obeidallah and al-Najjar's uncle, Taleb.
Palestinian police have arrested 22 suspected jihadi Salafis in Hebron and the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin in the last three weeks, the Palestinian security official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
Obeidallah Nairouh said his brother had served six years in an Israeli prison for Hamas-related activities. In prison, Mohammed quit Hamas and drifted toward the Salafis, his brother said.
He said his brother was upset with Hamas for not imposing Shariah law in Gaza and spoke frequently about the need to engage in jihad, or holy war.
Despite Nairouh's apparent falling out with Hamas, the militant group dominated his funeral march in Hebron. Several thousand mourners joined the procession, many of them raising the green flag of Hamas and chanting "revenge, revenge."
The other two men were buried in the nearby town of Yatta, where several thousand turned up for the funeral procession.
In Yatta, clashes erupted between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. Several dozen Palestinian youths hurled rocks and rolled burning tires at soldiers, sending plumes of black smoke into the air. The forces tried to disperse the crowd with sound grenades and rubber-tipped bullets. One youth was seen limping away, but no serious injuries were reported.
Jihadi Salafis believe in a global jihad, or holy war. The ideology is linked to that of al-Qaida. Many have flocked to Syria to fight alongside the rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Associated Press writer Karin Laub contributed to this report.