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Israeli Army Accused of Atrocities

Conflict: Residents of Jenin say soldiers targeted civilians and gunmen alike.


JENIN, West Bank — Khadra Samara, her family and closest neighbors lived in three adjacent cinder-block houses on Rwabe Street, a relatively quiet corner of the Palestinian refugee camp here.

For 17 terrifying hours this week, she says, the 30 unarmed neighbors fled on hands and knees from one three-story home to the next, huddling together as Israeli helicopter gunships, tanks and bulldozers reduced the buildings to rubble in methodical succession.

Israel's fiercest assault of its 2-week-old West Bank operation dealt systematic destruction and random death to civilians as well as fighters in this militant Palestinian stronghold, according to displaced residents of the camp and relief workers in Jenin. The battle was all but over Thursday with the surrender of dozens of Palestinians, the last holdouts among an estimated 200 fighters.

According to the accounts, which couldn't be independently verified, the Israelis fired on unarmed civilians, used them as human shields and obstructed medical workers trying to save the wounded. One camp resident, Ali Ramile, a 40-year-old truck driver, said he watched Israeli soldiers kill seven or eight disarmed Palestinian fighters execution-style and dump several loads of bodies in a mass grave within 100 yards of his home.

Brig. Gen. Eyal Shline, commander of the division that invaded Jenin, dismissed Palestinian allegations of atrocities during the fighting. The army denied that it had buried or removed Palestinian bodies, saying it feared that they might be booby-trapped.

"There was no massacre," Shline said. "We could have taken the camp in one day. But we didn't use planes or artillery" in order to spare civilians. "But someone who has decided to give up his village and use his children and elderly for terror is going to get hurt."

Early today, the army estimated that hundreds of Palestinians were killed in fighting in Jenin. Palestinian estimates ranged up to 500. Dr. Hussam Sherkawi, Palestinian director of emergency services in the West Bank, said the death toll was at least 140 but cautioned that it was impossible to verify because rescue services hadn't been permitted to enter Jenin.

Israel said its West Bank offensive was aimed at rooting out suicide bombers and other armed militants who inflicted heavy civilian casualties in Israel last month.

But interviews with more than a dozen Palestinians from the Jenin camp indicated a heavy loss of civilian life there. Nearly everyone interviewed said they had watched neighbors die from Israeli shelling or sniper fire, or at least seen bodies in the street.

And Palestinian human rights organizations, citing reports that they said came from camp residents and witnesses, have accused Israeli troops of executing prisoners and digging graves in the camp. There was no independent confirmation of the reports because Israel denies access to the area.

Jenin's Al Razi hospital was struggling to cope with the West Bank's worst bloodshed since the 1967 Middle East War.

"Ten days ago, we hoped someone could do something to save the refugee camp, but now the camp is gone," said Dr. Ziad Ayaseh, the hospital's director.

Israeli missiles took out several water tanks on the roof, threatening the hospital's water supply, he said. The army siege blocked fuel supplies that power the hospital's generator--the only source of electric power. The staff pharmacologist and urologist were slightly wounded by apparently stray army gunfire.

A 16-year-old boy was shot dead Thursday on a street in Jenin, half an hour after the army had lifted a curfew to allow the city's residents to move about for the first time in five days, hospital officials say. A 52-year-old woman wounded Monday inside her home in the refugee camp bled to death before relatives could get her to the hospital Thursday, they said.

Sameh Abazeineh, an aide to Jenin's mayor, said his 70-year-old neighbor died waving his arms in the air in a futile effort to stop an Israeli bulldozer from destroying his home in the camp.

Other residents reported seeing a tank round kill a neighbor who was recharging his cellular phone with his car battery and finding the body of a mentally disabled neighbor who had been shot and run over by a tank.

Riad Ghaleb, a 28-year-old produce merchant, said the Israelis targeted his entire camp neighborhood, Damaj, after three soldiers died there in an ambush. Helicopter gunships fired on rows of densely packed homes, killing two young boys in their home, he charged.

"After that, I saw five bulldozers and three tanks come in," said Ghaleb, who walked out of the camp into central Jenin on Thursday. "Now there are no more houses in my neighborhood. It's all a big highway now."

The extent of destruction in the camp was unclear.

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