Both sides sound a call to arms in Mideast offensive


JERUSALEM -- The warning was in Hebrew, amplified by a bullhorn at a mosque overlooking a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin, and the message was directed at Israeli soldiers waging war in the narrow streets below.

"Soldiers, get out!" the voice cried, rising to be heard over the crackle of machine-gun fire. "Don't ask what surprises await you here. We'll kill you and your civilians." Then came the voice of a young girl, in Arabic, calling for resistance from the residents of the camp: "Heroes, protect us!"

That is what an imam, a prayer leader from the mosque, remembered when he described yesterday's events by telephone. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen were still battling in the Jenin refugee camp, where the maze of streets rendered tanks useless and compelled soldiers to creep along blind alleys and fight house to house.

For more than a year, Israeli military checkpoints have kept the camp's residents virtually locked inside the city. Now, a curfew has trapped them in darkened rooms, in a community without electricity and running water, since late last week. Residents said as many as 30 bodies littered the streets.

It is much the same in Nablus, where battles yesterday were said to be especially fierce. Palestinian officials said up to 70 Palestinians had been killed there and in Jenin in two days.

Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli army's chief of staff, said casualty figures for the West Bank have risen substantially, with more than 200 Palestinians killed in the past 10 days and 1,500 wounded. Twelve Israeli soldiers have been killed, eight in Jenin and four in Nablus.

In Jenin, Israeli troops were searching laboriously for gunmen and weapons in a camp that is an 8-acre labyrinth packed with 15,000 impoverished residents. From a hilltop vantage point three miles away, smoke could be seen billowing from houses as Israeli attack helicopters hovered above, strafing the area.

"There have been continuous clashes," Abu Nizar, a 43-year-old cabdriver who lives at the edge of the camp, said by cell phone. "There's been heavy shelling for the past 48 hours. At night, it's more intense."

In Nablus, Israeli soldiers bore down on the casbah, the oldest, most densely built part of the city, where hundreds of armed fighters were reported to have gathered. Armored Israeli bulldozers tore down buildings to force open a route, encountering mines and pockets of fighters along the way.

"All efforts from both sides are being put into this fight," the governor of Nablus, Mahoud al-Aloul, said by telephone.

An Israeli commander in Nablus told Army Radio that patience is "running low."

"If the wanted men don't surrender," he said, "we'll consider bombing the casbah, because the lives of our soldiers are no less dear than the lives of their residents."

Israeli military leaders have said they had planned a monthlong offensive, but officers acknowledge that U.S. pressure will curtail the operation.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israeli forces must "clean as much as possible the terror infrastructure, but we have to be realistic. ... Our hourglass is running out."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected in Israel on Friday, and a Cabinet minister told Israel Radio that the army "apparently will have to stop" the offensive when Powell arrives.

Powell said he spoke yesterday with Ariel Sharon, and that the Israeli prime minister understands President Bush's demand that the Israeli offensive stop immediately.

"I'm quite sure he understands that message, and the president is expecting [a halt] without delay, meaning now, and so you'll see how the prime minister responds in the very near future," Powell said on Fox News Sunday.

Sharon said the military operation is crucial to his country's security.

"We are all in this campaign, which is decisive for the continued existence of a secure Israel, which is a condition for attaining peace, the vision and desire of us all.

"This is a fateful battle, ... a war for our homes," Sharon told his Cabinet, "and I want to send my blessings to all those facing this battle. We have had many fallen."

Israeli officers said troops would probably remain in Jenin after the offensive. The army expanded its operations yesterday into villages where Palestinian gunmen were believed to have taken refuge.

Eyewitness reports of battles have been scarce, because the Israeli military has barred reporters and humanitarian groups from observing the fighting.

Nasser Shatayeh, who lives near the Nablus casbah, said by phone that Israeli troops destroyed a seven-story apartment building and blew up a suspected bomb factory. He said nine bodies were buried together in a public garden and 18 others in a grave near a hospital because getting to the cemetery was too dangerous.

In Nablus and Jenin, soldiers were moving house to house by punching holes through walls, to avoid being exposed on the streets. Nearly the only people who dared appear on the streets were gunmen.

"It's like a ghost town," Shatayeh said of Nablus, the largest West Bank city. He and others said ambulances were unable to move, a complaint common to every West Bank city, and that the dead and wounded had not been retrieved.

In Jenin, Palestinian residents reported that continuous columns of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers were moving in and out of the city. The army said it sent reinforcements because of the unexpectedly fierce fighting.

Abu Nizar, the taxi driver, said bulldozers and shells from tanks destroyed the southwestern corner of the camp and that hundreds of men were detained by the military.

The army is calling its offensive a success, saying it has detained or killed many suspected terrorists, seized more than 2,000 rifles, pistols and automatic weapons, and found many bomb labs.

The militant Islamic group Hamas vowed to retaliate.

"It will be a new kind of punishment this time, of an unaccustomed type that will shake [Israel's] entity and destroy its pillars," the group, known for deadly suicide bombings, said in a leaflet distributed in Gaza.

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