Israel raids centres of West Bank militancy

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Israeli armed forces moved into another West Bank refugee camp early today, taking the war with the Palestinians into the volcanic core of the resistance to their 35-year occupation of Arab land.

Ignoring a fresh bout of a Saudi-inspired diplomatic efforts to restore calm, Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, stoked up the flames anew as the Israeli army raided camps at Jenin and Nablus. By nightfall, the death toll stood at nine Palestinians and one Israeli soldier.

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, telephoned Mr Sharon yesterday afternoon to call for restraint. But violence was flaring elsewhere in the West Bank, including at Gilo, a Jewish settlement south of Jerusalem where past attacks have led the Israeli army to invade nearby Palestinian areas, including Bethlehem.

The Israeli army said its operations were aimed at the heartland of Palestinian "terrorism" and were intended to show that "there is no refuge for terror". Similar language was used by Mr Sharon three decades ago when, as an army commander, he sought to subdue the refugee camps of Gaza by demolishing hundreds of homes to make way for wide, tank-friendly avenues; by exiling the parents of stone-throwers to Jordan, and by assassinating at least 104 suspects in seven months. By nightfall on Thursday, the army had yet to resort to these desperate measures, although it was clear it had stirred up a hornet's nest.

In the past it has knocked down houses in the 27 highly-politicised refugee camps of the occupied territories, and blasted them with tank shells and machine guns, but it has largely avoided raiding them.

The leader of the opposition in the Israeli Knesset, Yossi Sarid, described the operations as "total madness" and a "new stage in the war for the well-being of [Israeli] settlements".

Undeterred by the knowledge that, 30 years on, the Palestinian militias are more radicalised and better armed than ever, Mr Sharon and his generals singled out several of the most volatile parts of the occupied territories. They went into a camp in Jenin, which has long been a hotspot, and into the Balata refugee camp in Nablus, where the first intifada began on the West Bank in 1987.

Balata residents said Israeli troops, backed by helicopters, tank shells and snipers firing from the hilltops, entered Balata in the early hours, setting off fierce fire-fights. They took control of a United Nations boys' school, a white four-storey building set among the rabbit-warren of refugee houses, home to 20,000 people. Exactly why was not clear – although it may have had some connection with the attack by a female suicide bomber on an Israeli army checkpoint on Wednesday night.

The camp is uneasy at the best of times. This is the poor, down-at-heel heartland of the Hamas and Fatah radicals, where Yasser Arafat is seen at best as a distant figurehead and at worst as a corrupt, self-aggrandising incompetent. Practically every square inch of wall space carries a poster supporting the "martyrs" killed in the conflict, or a bellicose scrawl of anti-Israeli graffiti. But yesterday afternoon – with three dead in Balata – the tension was almost stifling.

At noon, the Israelis had broadcast a message in Arabic on the local radio station, saying the main exit road would be closed from 3pm, and the army would not be responsible for the residents' safety thereafter.

Some left; many stayed. Balata knew more trouble was coming – that much was clear from the Apache helicopters overhead, and the regular crack of snipers' rifles. Yet women, with tiny children tucked on their hips, peered out of the doorways, frightened but refusing to leave. Old men shuffled defiantly along the streets, oblivious to the smouldering tyres and the ineffectual barricades of overturned cars, and heavy rocks. By nightfall, there was more fighting.

Nor did did the 3pm deadline deter the Palestinian gunmen moving quietly around the network of dark, narrow alleys between the refugee houses around the Israeli-occupied UN school. They ushered us through, happy to help but keen not to be photographed. Palestinians know the rhetoric of this conflict by heart, but it comes with genuine passion when their homes are under threat. "Why should I leave here?" asked Mustafa, a 19-year-old unemployed youth, when we asked him why he was not responding to the deadline. "My family was driven from their village in 1948. Why should we be driven out again?"

Sheikh Fathi Darwish, the local imam, was equally defiant: "I am not leaving – why should I? We aren't frightened. If we die here, we die here."

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