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THE MIDDLE EAST

Army Bears Down on 2 West Bank Cities

Conflict: Sharon's remarks suggest Israel will try to wipe out as many militants as it can in the coming days.

April 07, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and CAROLYN COLE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NABLUS, West Bank — Israel's offensive in the West Bank met its fiercest resistance yet Saturday as armed Palestinian militants in the labyrinthine alleys of Nablus' old city and a seething refugee camp on the edge of Jenin fought off helicopters, tanks and bulldozers.

At least 26 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were killed Saturday, most of them in the two Palestinian strongholds, as fighting intensified despite President Bush's demand for an Israeli withdrawal "without delay."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a phone conversation with Bush late Saturday, promised instead to "accelerate" the offensive, his office announced. Sharon told Bush that his army was being slowed by opposition from "a great deal of weapons, explosives and armed terrorists" and by its own attempt to avoid civilian casualties.

Israeli officials admit that U.S. pressure will oblige them to curb the operation before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrives later this week on a cease-fire mission. Sharon's remarks suggest that the army will step up the operation, which had been designed to last weeks, to wipe out as many militants as possible in the coming days.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remained trapped in their homes Saturday, some enduring fierce gunfire without water, electricity or ambulance services. In Jenin, an unarmed 22-year-old Palestinian man bled to death within 15 feet of a hospital while Israeli soldiers shot at nurses who tried to save him, a doctor there reported.

"We're getting information about many people killed or wounded, but nobody is able to reach them," Jamal Shati, a member of the Palestinian parliament, said by telephone from Jenin's besieged refugee camp. "We hear women yelling, screaming. The shelling is constant and hits almost everything--mosques, nurseries. Nothing is spared."

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen traded fire in Hebron, leaving three Palestinians dead, and at the besieged Ramallah compound of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. In Bethlehem, Vatican and U.S. officials tried to end a 5-day-old standoff between Israeli soldiers surrounding the Church of the Nativity and armed Palestinians holed up inside.

Violence also erupted in the Gaza Strip, which has been tense but relatively quiet during the West Bank offensive. Palestinian militants attacked a Jewish settlement, prompting an Israeli tank assault on a nearby village. One Israeli soldier and four Palestinians died in the clashes, including a 6-year-old girl walking home from her first day at school.

Israel invaded Palestinian-ruled areas of the West Bank more than a week ago after a series of suicide bombings killed scores of Israelis. Tanks and armored vehicles have moved into every West Bank city except Jericho, occupying most places with only limited resistance.

Not so in Nablus and Jenin. The two cities, 15 miles apart in the northern part of the West Bank, are home to large numbers of militants and a number of the recent suicide bombers.

As the Israeli army moved in last week, Palestinian gunmen massed for a fight in the casbah, Nablus' old city, and the refugee camps on the edge of Nablus and Jenin. The alleyways in both places are ideal for urban guerrilla warfare, too narrow for tanks to enter.

The Israeli army tried to overcome that obstacle Saturday by sending bulldozers into the Jenin camp under the protective fire of helicopter gunships, destroying at least 40 homes in the cramped settlement of 15,000 people, witnesses said. Other houses struck by Israeli shelling were said to be in flames.

In Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, troops that had ringed the casbah with tanks for two days finally moved in on foot Saturday, going from house to house by rooftop and breaking in from above to search for gunmen, witnesses said.

Resistance in both cities was described as bloody and round the clock, with militants laying mines and firing automatic rifles from apartments, homes and, according to the Israeli army, the minaret of a Jenin mosque.

Jamal abu Haija, a leader of the militant Islamic movement Hamas in Jenin, told Associated Press that fighters were distributing weapons, including hand grenades and explosive belts like those used by suicide bombers, to residents of the refugee camp.

Alarmed by the bloodshed, the Palestinian Authority appealed to the United Nations Security Council, the United States, the European Union and humanitarian organizations worldwide "to intervene immediately to stop the massacres."

Palestinian and Israeli sources listed 15 Palestinians confirmed killed in Jenin on Saturday, but many more were believed dead, their bodies inaccessible to ambulances.

"The army has taken up positions outside and will not allow our ambulances to leave," said Mohammed abu Ghali, a doctor at Jenin Hospital. "The hospital is running on a generator, but it is running out of fuel."

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