SALEM, Israel - The Israeli army began yesterday gathering the bodies of scores of Palestinians killed in fighting in the Jenin refugee camp and said it would bury them, making it difficult for families and aid agencies to know the death toll and the circumstances in which people died.
The army has said its troops killed about 100 Palestinian gunmen in the camp, their bodies scattered in alleys, homes and under the rubble of bulldozed buildings. Palestinians say far more people were killed, including noncombatants.
Palestinian officials have complained that the army barred ambulance crews from retrieving the dead. Israeli officials said the Palestinians refused to claim the bodies; the army has barred other aid groups and reporters from the scene.
"Nobody knows what happened," said Nigel Roberts, the head of the World Bank's West Bank office and a United Nations representative. "It is very worrying. The sooner they let people into Jenin, the better it will be for everybody."
Maj. Yarom Shamir, an Israeli army spokesman, said that most of the people killed had been Palestinian fighters and that the city and camp remained too dangerous for civilians.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," Shamir said. "We didn't leave our homes and our families to pick up a gun and indiscriminately kill Palestinians."
A small number of reporters managed to enter the city but were expelled yesterday by the army.
One group was told to drive out of the city and was followed all the way by a tank.
The smattering of reports and interviews, however, indicated vast destruction in the square-mile camp, where about 15,000 people lived.
Israeli officials said the dead would be buried in a cemetery in the Jordan Valley where Lebanese fighters killed in cross-border attacks have been interred in unmarked graves.
What the Palestinians describe as a massacre of innocents the Israeli army says was a difficult battle against hard-core terrorists in which 23 Israeli soldiers were killed, including 13 in a single ambush.
""If we had wanted to, we could have simply bombed the place and it would have been over in one hour," said reserve Maj. David Zangen, 43, the operation's chief medical officer. "But we didn't do that. We fought house to house, and we took a lot of casualties because we wanted to make sure we hit only fighters. This is not a camp of civilians. It is a camp of terrorists."
The days of brutal fighting were confined to about 3,600 square yards at the center of the camp, the army said, with most of the deaths occurring there. Officers described it as a headquarters of suicide bombers; among the men killed or captured were some of the top bomb experts in the West Bank, the army said.
Zangen, the chief pediatrician at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, said Palestinians had booby-trapped houses with explosives. Soldiers discovered a network of tunnels that allowed gunmen to move underground through the camp, they said.
Soldiers interviewed yesterday said they found piles of pre-printed martyr posters of future suicide bombers and belts filled with explosives.
Zangen said that at one point two elderly women emerged from their homes, their hands held high in surrender. But as soldiers led them away by the arm, a man hiding behind them blew himself up. No one else was injured in the blast.
"They were using civilians in the camp as human shields," Zangen said. "How can we fight that?"
From the few pictures available of the camp, it is clear that some people have stayed in what is left of the camp, without electricity or running water. Israeli bulldozers continue to demolish houses.
Roberts, the U.N. representative, said that one of his workers was allowed into a small section of the camp Thursday to help a pregnant woman reach a hospital. The worker noted the bulldozed homes but did not see any bodies.
Whatever the death toll from this week's intense fighting, the battle did not end the killings. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed that a suicide bombing that killed six people yesterday in Jerusalem was carried out by a woman from the Jenin refugee camp.