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Israel Launches Major Assault On Palestinian Refugee Camps

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES

BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank

Backed by tanks and helicopters, Israeli forces launched a major, risky assault on two Palestinian refugee camps Thursday, conducting house-to-house searches and battling gunmen who vowed to fight to the death.

The mission to break Palestinian militant strongholds marked the first time in 17 months of warfare that Israel had invaded a refugee camp, and it triggered some of the fiercest combat yet.

Israel said the densely populated Balata camp in the West Bank city of Nablus and the nearby Jenin camp are “hotbeds of terrorism” where Palestinian militants train, make weapons, take shelter and plot dozens of murderous attacks on Israelis.

For Israel, entering Balata, a teeming warren of cramped cinder-block homes and narrow streets where at least 20,000 Palestinians live, was always a red line, a threshold that few would have predicted Israel would cross. The layout inside the decades-old camp is suitable to the guerrilla warfare that Palestinian militants wage, not the conventional operations of Israel’s mechanized army. The risk of heavy losses has always been considered high.

The offensive began late Wednesday, and fighting continued to rage early Friday in Balata, where Israeli forces had seized control of many of the buildings. Palestinian fighters vowed revenge and carried out shooting attacks on numerous Jewish communities throughout the West Bank and near Jerusalem -- followed by further Israeli retaliation.

At least 13 Palestinians were killed in Balata and Jenin and more than 100 wounded. One Israeli soldier, a member of an elite paratroop reconnaissance squad, was also killed in Balata. Scores of Palestinian civilians fled the camps or hunkered down, stockpiling food and bracing for worse.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher urged that “the utmost restraint be exercised to avoid harm to the civilian population. These are heavily populated areas.”