Israeli troops renewed their assault on the Jenin refugee camp today, in what Israel calls a necessary operation to show terrorists that there is “no safe haven,” but what Palestinians call an attempt to sabotage the peace plan recently proposed by Saudi Arabia.
Ambulances waited outside the camps to try to take the wounded to hospitals. Meanwhile in the tight camp alleyways, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen traded fire in what is being described as the most violent fighting since the current uprising began 17 months ago.
Israel has fired into Palestinian refugee camps in the past, but this is the first incursion of large numbers of troops.
The new Israeli tactic began on Thursday when helicopters and tanks battled their way into the Balata and Jenin camps, killing at least 11 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier.
According to Israeli officials, Palestinian militants have taken refuge in the camps, where overcrowded blocks and narrow streets provide protection from Israeli tanks.
In Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, 22,000 residents live in less than a third of a mile square. Israel officials say it is a command center for the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a group linked to Palestinian leader Arafat’s Fatah Party that has claimed responsibilty for several attacks against Israelis.
Before the attack, the Israeli Army urged non-combatant residents of the Balata camp to flee. But the New York Times reported that few Balata residents appeared to leave, either because they had nowhere else to go, or because they did not want to leave their homes again.
“We were refugees already twice,” said Mahmoud Diyab, 80, who said he was pushed out of homes in the 1967 war as well as in 1948.
Responding to the Israeli attacks, Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat called on the international community to intervene in what he described as a massacre.
“I call upon the whole world to act quickly before a state of chaos engulfs the whole Middle East region,” Mr. Arafat told reporters.
Palestinian officials said the raids were timed to undermine a Saudi peace proposal that has gained praise from Arabs and some Israeli officials. U.S. officials, including George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, were in Saudi Arabia Thursday discussing the plan with its author, Crown Prince Abdullah.
Under the Saudi proposal, Arab countries would recognize the state of Israel in exchange for a withdrawal from territories Israel occupied during the 1967 Mideast war.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not commented directly on the Saudi plan, which does not address some of the most contentious issues such as the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem.
However the proposal has been rejected by far-right members of Sharon’s cabinet.
From the Israeli left, Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid called the refugee camp attacks “total craziness,” and urged Mr. Sharon to withdraw Israeli forces from the camps.
“This is a new phase in the war for the safety of the settlements,” he said.
The U.S. has said it was “especially concerned” about the move on refugee camps, but maintained that Israel has a right to defend itself.
However “every effort should be made to avoid harm to civilians,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Since renewed fighting began in September 2000, 1,015 Palestinians have died as have 288 Israelis.