Two hundred Palestinians have been killed in the 10 days since the Israeli army swept into Palestinian towns in the West Bank, according to the army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz.
In one refugee camp alone, outside Nablus, the army had killed more than 30 Palestinians in 48 hours of fighting.
Fighting raged all weekend at refugee camps as the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, continued to defy President George Bush's demand that his forces withdraw "without delay".
Troops fought street battles with Palestinian gunmen in the packed refugee camp at Balata, on the edge of Nablus, as residents, not allowed to leave by the Israeli army, sheltered in their houses.
Helicopters flew over the camp, firing on the Palestinian fighters below. Tanks cannot enter the narrow, twisting alleys of Balata, but took up positions outside and shelled the camp. Fighting was going on in the market area of Nablus.
The commander of the Israeli Paratroopers Brigade, Colonel Aviv Kochavi, said more than 30 Palestinians had been killed in the past 24 hours. "There are constant battles – fighting in alleyways, from house to house," the colonel said. Eleven Israeli soldiers had been killed in the 10 days of the offensive, he said.
The Palestinian gunmen holding out in the Balata refugee camp were reported to have said yesterday that they would not surrender, but would fight "until the end".
There was also heavy fighting in the refugee camp outside Jenin. The Palestinian Red Crescent said 33 Palestinians were killed in the Jenin camp on Saturday alone. Palestinian fighters have put up their fiercest resistance in the refugee camps at Nablus and Jenin, and the Israeli army said yesterday that it needed more time to finish its operations in the West Bank – even as relief organisations warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe.
Israeli soldiers fought their way to the centre of the Jenin camp yesterday morning, Israel Radio reported. An army spokesman, Brigadier-General Ron Kitrey, said: "We are on the verge of ending the fighting in the refugee camp."
But he added that soldiers would seek to round up militants and would not immediately leave the area. "The resistance was very tough, perhaps tougher than expected," he said.
According to Israel Radio, Lieutenant-General Mofaz told the Cabinet he needed another eight weeks to completethe job.
"The critical element is time," he said later. "We need time to get to all the centres of terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza."
The United States is thought to be pushing for Israeli forces to withdraw from the West Bank by the time the Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, arrives in the country, which is expected to be on Thursday at the earliest.
In the north of Israel, there were more dangerous signs of the conflict widening.
The army ordered civilians into bomb shelters along the Lebanese border after continuing attacks by Hizbollah guerrillas across the disputed border area.
Six Israeli soldiers were wounded in attacks yesterday, four of them women.Reuse content