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THE MIDDLE EAST

Jenin Residents Search for Bodies After Israel Pulls Out

April 20, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER and MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JENIN, West Bank — Israeli troops finished their withdrawal from this West Bank town Friday, but encircled it with tanks, snipers and roadblocks as Palestinian residents continued digging through the rubble of an adjacent refugee camp for corpses.

The Israeli army said it had completed its operations in the town and the camp, scenes of the bloodiest fighting in Israel's massive, three-week military sweep through Palestinian areas. No Israeli army forces could be seen in the streets Friday.

But troops were positioned to reenter at will, with tanks and armored personnel carriers parked only a few yards from the town limits. Soldiers took up positions in olive groves and fields and on dirt tracks.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has promised President Bush that Israeli forces will withdraw from Palestinian areas of the West Bank, except for the cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem, over the coming week. Israeli media reported Friday night that troops will pull out of the city of Nablus and parts of Ramallah by Sunday morning.

Sharon also has vowed that Israeli forces will reenter Palestinian territory as deemed necessary to root out militants.

Inside the refugee camp here, there were scenes of misery as the slow work of uncovering bodies continued. Refugees disinterred more than two dozen bodies from the rubble of the camp to bury them anew in a cemetery dedicated to those killed in the incursion.

Palestinians continued to insist that between 300 and 400 people were killed, though only 39 bodies had been found by Friday. Israeli forces lost 23 soldiers and have estimated Palestinian losses at about 60.

Women sobbed as they attempted to identify loved ones. The stench of death permeated the area. The bodies, wrapped in white cloth, were taken to an olive grove at the edge of the camp to be laid to rest.

"We are not defeated. Our will is strong and is not broken. Resistance is still our option," said Taysir Fayed, 42, who believes that he lost two brothers, both members of the militant group Hamas, during the invasion. One man was missing; the body of the other was disinterred and reburied Friday.

Making a bad situation worse, several refugees were injured when they detonated, apparently by accident, explosive devices remaining from the battle. Local doctors said at least five people, four of them children, were wounded.

At Jenin's hospital, Alaa Rateb was recovering after being injured in an explosion late Thursday afternoon. Relatives said the boy was 15 or 16. His eyes were swollen shut and his face blistered and blackened with specks of shrapnel. His right hand was wrapped in bloody gauze. He lost two fingers in the blast.

Rateb said he was injured as he tried to deliver clothes to his aunt. He went to her home, knocked and pushed the door open. Suddenly, he was flung backward.

"I knocked on the door and something exploded," he said. "I don't know what it was."

In Washington, President Bush responded to questions about conditions in the camps by saying: "I share a deep concern about the humanitarian plight of people who live in that region. Obviously, I worry about families whose lives have been affected by the terror."

Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, earlier said the administration supported an international investigation of the Jenin occupation.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, meanwhile, conferred in Washington with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on the next steps in the diplomatic quest for peace. Powell said the United States is anxious to see a full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas so that talks can resume on security and political issues.

In the Gaza Strip, where tensions are mounting as Palestinians brace for what many believe will be Israel's next military campaign, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up Friday at an Israeli checkpoint near the Gush Katif bloc of Jewish settlements. Islamic Jihad, a militant group, claimed responsibility. One soldier was slightly injured in the blast, which occurred on the main Gaza road.

Also Friday, three Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli troops in Rafah, a hot spot of violence on Gaza's border with Egypt. The army said troops entered the Brazil refugee camp looking for entrances to cross-border underground tunnels, which Israel says are used to smuggle arms. Palestinians said a gunfight broke out when troops and more than a dozen tanks moved into the crowded camp, scene of many previous gun battles and army incursions.

Palestinians said the troops bulldozed several homes, but an army spokesman denied that.

In another incident, two Islamic Jihad militants trying to infiltrate the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza were killed by Israeli troops, Palestinians and the army reported. A 19-year-old and a 20-year-old were spotted moving toward the settlement, an army spokesman said. Both were carrying rifles and one had a ladder, the spokesman said.

Islamic Jihad issued a statement saying the men had been sent to avenge "massacres by the enemy" in Jenin and other West Bank towns.

Thousands of Palestinians marched in grim funeral processions in Gaza on Friday afternoon, burying six police officers killed in Nablus earlier this month when Israeli troops entered the city's ancient marketplace. Such funerals are beginning to take place across the West Bank as bodies from the recent fighting are being returned to their home villages.

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Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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