Seventeen dead in latest incursion

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At least 17 Palestinians were killed yesterday when Israeli forces attacked refugee camps in their biggest offensive in 17 months of conflict.

The continued bloodshed came as Israel confirmed that it was freeing Yasser Arafat from months of imprisonment in a West Bank town and its troops rounded up 1,000 other Palestinians. Mr Arafat remains banned from travelling abroad.

Israeli troops swept through the West Bank town of Qalqilya and the Dheisheh refugee camp. Tanks then rolled towards the sprawling Jebalya refugee camp next to Gaza City early today after an attack on a Jewish settlement. Witnesses said Israeli helicopter gunships fired at the camp as the tanks moved in. Doctors at two Gaza hospitals said 17 Palestinians were killed and at least 75 wounded.

Earlier, hundreds of bedraggled teenagers and men from the Dheisheh camp in Bethlehem yesterday gathered at a marble cutting factory, after being ordered to report for interrogation. Stripped to their under-shirts, with their hands on the heads, they formed a dismal queue as they waited to be handcuffed and ­ in some cases ­ blindfolded before Shin Bet agents questioned them and checked their security records.

The round-up, condemned as degrading and counter-productive by human rights organisations, was the latest of several in the refugee camps, which began on Friday, a day known by Palestinians as Black Friday because Israeli forces killed 44 people.

Israel is conducting the mass interrogations in the name of clamping down on Palestinian attacks, but doubts abound over whether they have been effective; most of the armed groups appear to slip away beforehand.

Similar interrogations in the West Bank town of Tulkarm over the weekend led to the arrest of 50 men who, according to Israeli human rights organisations, are being held in a military detention centre without charge or access to lawyers.

Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, said Mr Arafat was free to travel in the occupied territories after being confined to Ramallah since late November. The move angered the far right, not least because it came less than 48 hours after a suicide bomber killed 11 Israelis, and followed a week of heavy Israeli loss of life.

The Prime Minister is presenting the move as a "concession" in response to the arrest by Mr Arafat's security services of the five alleged killers of the tourism minister Rechavam Ze'evi in October.