Israeli military commanders said troops have withdrawn to the edges of the refugee camp and will leave the nearby town of Jenin overnight, the Associated Press reported. But Israeli soldiers were patrolling the center of town as evening set in, a New York Times reporter said.
With the military’s presence waning, residents began the task of searching for the missing and the dead among the rubble.
Muhammed Abu Ghali, director of Jenin hospital, told reporters he could confirm 36 dead, but expected the toll might be anywhere between 200 and 400. Ghali pleaded for international aid, saying people are “finding bodies every day and they are searching with their hands.”
United Nations Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen called the Jenin operation “a disgraceful chapter” in Israel’s history, and said it was likely to create fresh hatred and militancy among Palestinians.
“This is not in the security interest of Israel, it is the opposite,” Larsen told Israel Radio. “What has been produced here is a very strong terrorist infrastructure, because the hatred and the aggression against Israel and Israelis has reached a new peak.”
Larsen said international aid groups had been prevented from performing operations that could have saved Palestinian lives and that Israel had not given food convoys proper access to the camp.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, have described the Jenin camp as a “hornet’s nest of terror” and a major base for suicide attacks against Israel. The Israeli army said their military operation served as a pre-emptive strike, resulting in the death or capture of 10 would-be suicide bombers who had already recorded farewell videotapes.
Officials said 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in the Jenin operation while battling Palestinians armed with rifles and bombs. Israeli leaders say the Palestinian casualties, estimated so far in the dozens, were largely militants hiding out in the camp.
“We could have used weapons in Jenin which would have spared our forces injury, but instead, out of concern for civilian life, we sent in foot soldiers and suffered for it,” Israeli Lt.-Col. Adir Haruvi told reporters.
Also Thursday, Israeli army officials in Jerusalem arrested Husam Ali Badran, a high-level member of Hamas, whom they claim is responsible for organizing numerous suicide bombings on Israeli targets — including the March 27 hotel attack that helped spark the Israeli incursion.
A Palestinian source disputed the claim, telling Reuters Badran was more of a “low-level activist.”
Witnesses said Israelis captured Barden in a raid outside the village of Beit Hassan. The attack, according to witnesses, left three men accompanying Badran dead.
In Bethlehem, the standoff continued between Israeli troops and some 200 armed militants holed up in the Church of the Nativity, the site Christians believe was the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
According to numerous accounts, Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters traded machine gun fire and exploded stun grenades outside the church, where the Palestinians have been holed up since April 2.
Representatives from each side said the other fired the first shot. There was no immediate word of casualties.
A formal meeting between the two sides was scheduled for Thursday, but was later called off.