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Israelis Take Control of Jenin Camp

April 11, 2002 GMT

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JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) _ Palestinian militants booby-trapped every place they thought Israeli troops might be caught off-guard _ doorways, roadside sewers, even women’s purses.

In round-the-clock gunbattles that roared for eight days, Israeli troops inched their way through the narrow streets and alleys of Jenin refugee camp, toward strongholds of Palestinian gunmen, bulldozing rows of houses that blocked their armored vehicles.

Trapped inside cramped cinderblock homes, with water and electricity cut and food supplies dwindling, terrified residents endured a hellish week of fighting that made this impoverished camp look like it was hit by a powerful earthquake.

The last holdouts, 36 Palestinian gunmen who had exhausted their bullets and food, surrendered at dawn Thursday, and Israeli troops now have full control of the badly chewed up streets in a camp the size of a few city blocks set on a sloping hillside.

Yet Israelis and Palestinians are still waging a verbal battle over what happened inside the camp, scene of the most ferocious single battle in more than 18 months of Mideast fighting.

The Israeli military suffered 23 dead _ by far its highest total in any one battle. The army says it killed about 100 Palestinians, mostly militants.

However, the location of the Palestinian dead remains a mystery.

Palestinian officials, including Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, have talked about mass killings of civilians, without providing evidence.

In a first comprehensive look at the devastation in the camp, Associated Press journalists found widespread destruction but no bodies on the streets.

Several Palestinian men gave journalists a tour of the wreckage and said they had heard rumors that bodies were buried in mass graves, but didn’t know where.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said he received reports of 500 Palestinians killed in the offensive, but said he could not confirm the figure.

``We did not touch the Palestinian bodies, we did not remove them,″ army spokesman Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz said. ``This is Palestinian propaganda.″

At the main hospital in Jenin, Dr. Mohammed Abu Ghali said he received eight bodies during the first two days of fighting, but none since because the army sealed off the camp, keeping ambulances and rescue workers out.

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For resident Ali Damaj, everything around him was in ruins.

During the battle, Palestinian gunmen fired from nearby buildings and alleys. As many as 50 people huddled inside his three-room apartment. ``Keep on the floor. Keep quiet. Don’t look out the windows,″ Damaj told the kids.

No one was hurt inside. But to the left of his apartment, a bulldozer plowed 50 yards through the front of an apartment block, reducing it to a giant pile of broken concrete. Beds, tables and clothes were buried under knee-deep slabs of fractured concrete.

To the right, a bulldozer charged down an alley, shearing off the front wall of apartments on both sides of the street. Walking amid the debris offered a direct view into the front rooms of each home.

Along the back wall, cabinets holding plates and glasses were unscathed. Diplomas and clocks hung from the undamaged interior walls, a bit dusty, but otherwise fine.

The treads on tanks and armored personnel carriers chewed up what little pavement there was in the camp. Electrical poles and phone lines were knocked down, their wires crisscrossing the streets.

Buildings throughout the camp had gaping holes from rockets. Some were singed by explosions and fire, others badly pocked from sustained gunfire. Windows were shattered by the force of repeated explosions.

About one-third of the camp’s 14,000 residents managed to make it out during the battle, Damaj estimated. In some cases, it was only a matter of racing a few blocks to Jenin city. There was little movement in the streets of the camp Thursday.

In one bizarre scene, a woman in a wheelchair sat in the middle of a deserted street where heavy fighting had taken place all around. As journalists moved her to a nearby home, she wept and was unable to give a coherent explanation of how she ended up there.

A curfew remained in effect, shops were closed and soldiers ordered journalists out of the area. Army bulldozers continued to knock down buildings, sending up clouds of dust.

Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the army spokesman, said the bulldozers were being used to knock down any suspected militant hide-outs and clear the way for tanks and other armored vehicles to pass.

Israel detained hundreds of Palestinian men in the camp for questioning, and said it has seriously damaged the Palestinian ability to carry out attacks. Among those believed killed was Mahmoud Tawalbeh, 23, an Islamic Jihad leader and mastermind of several suicide bombings.

Mohammed Sayed, a camp resident, said he saw Tawalbeh on Sunday. He was wearing an explosives belt, carrying an automatic rifle in one hand and a bag filled with grenades in the other.

``I’m not afraid,″ Tawalbeh said, according to Sayed. ``The Israelis want me, but they won’t get me.″

While Tawalbeh was apparently killed, Israeli soldiers said a few militants may have managed to escape or hide in the camp.

Israel stormed into other Palestinian cities with little resistance when it launched West Bank incursions March 29 following a series of Palestinian suicide bombings. But when they moved into Jenin and nearby Nablus last week they faced ferocious fighting from the gunmen, who belong to several Palestinian militant groups.

Before Israel invaded Jenin, the army set up a large encampment with dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers in an open field, guaranteeing overwhelming firepower, but eliminating any element of surprise. The militants used the time to prepare ambushes and booby traps and take up fortified positions in apartment buildings.

``Everywhere we went their were bombs, and they were well hidden,″ said Yaron Zeltzer, a gunner on an armored personnel carrier. ``There were bombs in doorways, next to sewers, in women’s purses.″

Israeli soldiers said they rarely left their armored vehicles because the shooting and the threat of sniper fire were so great.

Yet Israeli troops did have to go door to door to flush out gunmen and search for explosives. In the deadliest single attack on Israeli troops in the current fighting, a group of Israeli reserve soldiers stumbled into an ambush, triggered by a series of explosions and followed by heavy gunfire. Thirteen soldiers were killed.

Israeli helicopters rained rockets and machine gun fire on buildings as the Israelis systematically worked their way through the camp until the shooting stopped Thursday.

``Here (in Jenin), we are in the middle of a battle,″ Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Wednesday during a visit to the army’s command post overlooking Jenin. ``If we leave, we will have to return. Once we finish, we are not going to stay here. But first we have to accomplish our mission.″