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Sharon Rebuffs U.S. as Jenin Camp Is Seized

Mideast: Mass surrenders and large numbers of deaths are reported as army continues offensive. Powell is to arrive in Israel tonight.

April 11, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAIFA, Israel — On the eve of a crucial U.S. diplomatic drive, Israel on Wednesday again refused to withdraw from the West Bank cities it invaded 13 days ago and said a deadly suicide bombing on a bus earlier in the day showed why the offensive must continue.

As the army reported that it had finally succeeded in conquering the beleaguered Jenin refugee camp, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and members of his government told the United States that although they appreciate America's friendship, Israel will wage its war on Palestinian militants as it sees fit.

"I hope our great friend the United States understands that this is a war of survival for us," Sharon told reporters during a visit to troops at an army base overlooking the Jenin camp. "It is our right to defend our citizens, and there should be no pressure put on us not to do that."

In Madrid, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and ranking officials from three other world powers called for an immediate end to Israel's military operation in the West Bank and for both Israelis and Palestinians to end "this senseless confrontation."

Powell, who is expected to arrive in Israel late tonight, huddled in a crisis session with officials from the United Nations, the European Union and Russia in the city where the current peace process was born 11 years ago.

In the West Bank, the Israeli operation continued Wednesday. In the Jenin camp, mass surrenders were reported--along with large numbers of deaths. Scores of Palestinians and about 30 Israeli soldiers were killed in a week of fighting. Israel said Palestinian gunmen put up their stiffest resistance in Jenin; Palestinian officials accused Israel of "massacres."

In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a monk was shot and wounded when he stuck his head out of the besieged Church of the Nativity. Israeli troops said it was unclear who shot him.

And in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, the bodies of eight Israelis were removed from a bus twisted and charred by a suicide bomber. The radical Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the Haifa blast, the first suicide bombing to target civilians in a week and clearly designed to undermine Powell's visit.

In the wake of the bombing, Sharon again rejected the U.S. and international pleas that Israeli forces pull out of the West Bank, digging in his heels hours before the arrival of Powell, who is making a long-shot attempt to broker a cease-fire.

Hundreds of right-wing Israelis rallied Wednesday night outside the U.S. Consulate in West Jerusalem to demand that the United States cease its pressure on the Sharon government. "Bush, Don't Push!" read one gigantic banner.

The Israeli army announced today that it had pulled out of 24 villages overnight, while continuing to operate in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus and Bethlehem and entering the villages of Birzeit and Dahariya.

On Wednesday, the Defense Ministry announced a pullout from three villages: Yatta, Kabatiya and Samua.

The Jenin refugee camp succumbed after a week of shelling by Israeli tanks and helicopters. By midmorning Wednesday, the resistance appeared to be all but over, although sporadic shooting was reported throughout the afternoon.

A Group of Holdouts Reported to Be Trapped

One group of about 50 holdouts was reported to have become trapped deep inside the camp without ammunition as Israeli bulldozers were bearing down. Jamal Hweil, one of the men, telephoned the pan-Arab Al Jazeera television network to claim that the Israeli army was refusing their surrender.

Hweil said the men feared that the bulldozers would demolish their hide-out, with them inside.

Residents of Jenin who were contacted by telephone said Israeli helicopters continued flying over the camp throughout the day without firing. But they said that bulldozers went into action around noon, knocking down homes damaged by the assault.

Omar abu Rashid, a Jenin businessman whose house overlooks the camp from half a mile away, said he saw five bulldozers demolish several hundred of the camp's 2,000 to 2,500 homes.

Refugee families, ordered into the streets by the army, were dispersed to various neighboring villages. Men were separated from women. Residents complained of a large number of civilian casualties and the destruction of water, electrical and sewage infrastructure along with large amounts of private property--homes, stores and cars.

Journalists were barred from Jenin. Two convoys, from UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, were allowed into the city to drop off food, medicine, other relief supplies and a generator for the city's hospital but were barred from the camp.

Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official, said about 500 Palestinians had been killed in Jenin and in Nablus, the largest West Bank city, since the offensive began late last month, dying in what he labeled a string of "Israeli massacres."

Among the dead was Mahmoud Tawalbeh, the head of the radical Islamic Jihad in Jenin.

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