Israel launches major assault on two refugee camps

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Backed by dozens of tanks and helicopter gunships, Israeli troops launched a major assault on two West Bank refugee camps this morning, a first in 17 months of fighting. Seven Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in heavy gun battles, and more than 50 Palestinians were wounded.

Backed by dozens of tanks and helicopter gunships, Israeli troops launched a major assault on two West Bank refugee camps this morning, a first in 17 months of fighting. Seven Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed in heavy gun battles, and more than 50 Palestinians were wounded.

The military said the Balata and Jenin camps were strongholds of Palestinian militants, and that the operation was intended to show that "there is no refuge for terror." A militia leader said his men would die rather than surrender.

The military strike came just hours after a Palestinian woman with an explosives belt strapped to her body blew herself up near an Israeli checkpoint late on Wednesday.

The suicide bomber was identified as Dareen Abu Aisheh, a 21-year-old English literature student at An Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus, adjacent to Balata. Abu Aisheh was the second woman to blow herself up since the fighting began in September 2000.

The fighting took to 1,003 the number of deaths on the Palestinian side since violence erupted on September 28, 2000. On the Israeli side, 288 people have been killed.

In the past 17 months, Israeli troops have repeatedly entered Palestinian towns and villages, but have largely stayed out of the 27 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many of them strongholds of militants.

Tanks cannot enter the narrow alleys of the crowded camps, and the military has not sent in ground troops, apparently to avoid Israeli casualties. Referring to the gunmen's boasting that Israeli soldiers would not dare enter the camps, the army said in a statement that until Thursday's operation, "the terror organizations saw these refugee camps as a safe haven from the Israeli security forces."

The army took up positions around Balata last week, commandeering four apartment buildings overlooking the camp, after six Israeli soldiers were killed by gunmen from the Al Aqsa Brigades militia. A leader of the militia, Nasser Awais, and hundreds of his followers are holed up in Balata, home to 20,000 Palestinians.

Early Thursday, dozens of tanks drove toward the camp. Palestinians said Israeli forces fired two missiles at Balata, knocking out electricity in the camp. Troops also fired heavy machine guns from helicopters, witnesses said. Soldiers took up positions in a school on the camp's southern edge.

Speaking to The Associated Press by phone as the Israeli assault got under way, Awais, the militia leader, said that "Israeli troops will not enter the camp except over our dead bodies."

Fighting in Balata continued throughout the morning. Two Palestinians – a militiaman and a bystander – and an Israeli soldier were killed. Palestinians said more than 50 people were wounded in Balata, including civilians.

Israeli tanks also entered the West Bank town of Jenin from three directions, Palestinians said, surrounding the refugee camp at the western edge of the town.

Palestinians said five Palestinian policemen were killed in exchanges of fire.

Israeli and Palestinian security commanders were to meet later Thursday to consider the situation in the Gaza Strip, said Palestinian West Bank security commander Jibril Rajoub.

Comments