Israeli tanks and soldiers left the Palestinian towns of Tulkarm and Qalqilya after President Bush demanded that Israel withdraw without delay from Palestinian areas. However, the blockade around the two towns will be tightened, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry.
Forces remain in the major towns of Nablus, Bethlehem and Ramallah.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday that the campaign would continue until Palestinian militias are crushed.
“It was a tough campaign, a campaign that we are continuing … until we will fulfill the decision of the Cabinet that calls for the destruction of the infrastructure of the terror groups,” Sharon said in televised remarks. “This is a battle for the survival of the Jewish people, for survival of the state of Israel.”
At least 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in the Jenin refugee camp when they entered a booby-trapped building. A military source said reserve soldiers looking for Palestinian militants were in the entrance of a building when a powerful blast buried some of the soldiers. Others were killed when Palestinian gunmen opened fire from the rooftops. At least nine were injured. It was the deadliest single attack on the army since the start of the Palestinian uprising 18 months ago.
The Jenin refugee camp is home to some 15,000 people and dozens of gunmen are currently trapped in a small area, witnesses told the Associated Press. Palestinians said armored bulldozers rolled over homes, in some cases without waiting for residents to leave, to widen narrow alleyways for tanks to pass through.
Palestinian officials estimate that more than 100 Palestinians have been killed inside the refugee camp over the past week.
Israeli tanks and armored vehicles also approached the West Bank town of Hebron, which has thus far escaped the latest offensive, but the convoy soon turned back. Israeli forces did enter the village of Dura, where Palestinian officials report that three Palestinians were killed, 15 wounded and around 70 people arrested.
In Bethlehem, more than 100 Palestinians, some armed, remain in the Church of the Nativity. A firefight broke out earlier today, damaging part of the building.
Prime Minister Sharon said Tuesday that Israeli forces would withdraw once they have effectively broken up the terrorist network responsible for attacks against Israel.
“This is a difficult day. There was a very tough battle against the terrorist organizations,” Sharon said in remarks broadcast on Israeli Channel One television shortly after news of the 13 Israeli soldier deaths was released.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah guerrillas fired on Israeli troops occupying the foothills of the Golan Heights Tuesday.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese group backed by Syria and Iran, launched rockets at least two Israeli positions in the contested Shebaa Farms area near the border between Lebanon, Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The group said daily attacks will continue as long as Israel occupies Palestinian cities.