Israeli troops, tanks occupy 2 refugee camps

At least 11 killed in army's first major entry into areas

`Nowhere is off limits'

March 01, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NABLUS, West Bank - Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopters fought their way yesterday into two Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, killing at least 10 Palestinians in gunbattles that began before dawn and continued into the night.

One Israeli soldier was killed in fighting that wounded more than 90 Palestinians at the Balata camp on Nablus' outskirts and a second camp at Jenin. It marked the first significant incursion of Israeli ground troops into the camps, regarded as headquarters of radical groups that have challenged the Palestinian Authority.

The camps had been immune to army assaults because of their dense housing, sharply angled streets and narrow alleys that were dangerous for troops and impassable to tanks. But that has apparently changed.

"The terror organizations saw these refugee camps as a safe haven from the Israeli security forces," said Israeli army Col. Aviv Kohavi, commander of the operation. "Nowhere is off limits to the army."

Palestinian officials said the Israeli offensive endangered the region and that its police force could not stop militants intent on responding with attacks of their own.

"We are warning Israel and are saying that if it does not withdraw its forces in the coming hours, the Palestinian side will strike against Israelis in all of the occupied territories," said Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Fatah faction of the PLO in the West Bank.

A few hours later, Palestinian gunmen fired on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, in the West Bank, wounding an Israeli and damaging several apartments. Israel responded with tank and helicopter fire on Beit Jala and Bethlehem.

The fighting followed a brief lull and overshadowed hopes raised by a Saudi initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would promise Israel normal diplomatic relations with the Arab world in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from land it captured during the 1967 war.

Cease-fire talks continue

Even as the battles raged yesterday, Palestinian and Israeli officials were meeting to discuss a cease-fire - talks that apparently made no progress.

Yossi Sarid, leader of Israel's opposition Meretz Party, accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of starting "a new stage in the war for the well-being of the settlements."

"The only result that can come of this is a bad one, such as the fire on Gilo, and that is very bad," Sarid said.

Suspected militant base

Israeli army commanders declined to describe their objective beyond the arrest of militant leaders and the confiscation of weapons. Security sources described the Balata camp, home to more than 20,000 Palestinians, as a stronghold for the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group that has claimed responsibility for a recent wave of attacks.

From a nearby hilltop, Balata seemed a solid mass of cinder-block houses set off by a green mosque. Gunfire could be heard throughout the day. The red flashing lights of ambulances could be seen snaking through the streets to retrieve the wounded.

At least three Palestinians were killed in Balata, two of them police officers. Seven other Palestinians, most of them police, were killed in the Jenin camp. Palestinians said their fighters in Balata had 14 Israeli soldiers under siege inside a hilltop school, a claim Israel denied.

The army began its operation by sweeping through the empty school, and officers said last night that their forces were in full control of Balata and going house-to-house searching for gunmen and weapons. "Control of the school is important," said Kohavi, who gave a news conference on a hill overlooking Balata. "From there you can control the camp."

Fighting after dark

But gunfire could still be heard after nightfall, and there were pockets of fierce resistance 20 hours after the operation began. Soldiers, fearful of walking the streets, broke down the walls of some of the houses during search operations, Kohavi said.

Dalal Salameh, a member of the Palestinian government who lives in Balata, said by telephone that constant gunfire kept people pinned inside their homes for hours. "There is strong resistance in the camp," she said.

She said Israeli soldiers had taken the camp's main thoroughfare, Jerusalem Street, and were on the rooftops of houses. She reported that helicopters were strafing the area around the school.

The army said it had allowed civilians to leave the camp and head into Nablus before nightfall.

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