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Five Palestinians killed in fighting in Palestinian refugee camp

Updated:
NABLUS, West Bank (AP) _ Moving deeper into two Palestinian refugee camps, Israeli troops killed five Palestinians in gun battles Friday, while commanders defended the assault on the crowded shantytowns - a first in 17 months of fighting - against scathing criticism at home.

Several military commentators said the strike against the Jenin and Balata refugee camps, strongholds of Palestinian militants, was risky and futile. The incursions have left 18 Palestinians, most of them gunmen, and an Israeli soldier dead since they began early Thursday. One of those killed Friday was a 10-year-old girl.

``One must be either stoned or a gambler to send the army in at this time and place,'' wrote Alex Fishman in a front-page commentary in the Yediot Ahronot daily.

Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, commander of troops in the West Bank, said the army had to deliver a message ``that there won't be a safe place for terrorists.'' Many bombers and gunmen who attacked Israelis came from the two camps.

Also Friday, a 7-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by what Palestinian witnesses said was indiscriminate Israeli machine gun fire toward a Bedouin encampment in the northern Gaza Strip.

``I was on my way back from Friday prayers when I heard the sound of heavy machine guns from the (nearby Jewish) settlement,'' said a resident, Osama Malouh, 41. ``I saw children outside, gathering around a boy who was bleeding. ... He died on the way to the hospital.''

The army had no immediate comment.

In the assault on the Balata and Jenin refugee camps, ground troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships moved from house to house, searching for militants and weapons.

In the Jenin camp, about 250 armed men were surrounded by Israeli tanks and snipers on rooftops, witnesses said. The gunmen sought cover in homes and in narrow alleys. ``We are in a trap,'' one of the gunmen, Jamal Hweel, told The Associated Press by phone.

Hweel said many of the fighters had explosives belts strapped to their bodies, and had placed homemade bombs at the entrances of alleys. Hweel said he and his comrades would not surrender. ``We want to die together,'' he said.

Five Palestinians, including three bystanders, were killed and 30 injured in fighting in the camp on Friday. One of the civilians was a 10-year-old girl killed while standing near the window of her home, witnesses said.

Many suicide bombers from the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad have left for attacks in Israel from the camp next to Jenin, at the northern edge of the West Bank.

In Balata, a Fatah stronghold, residents said the search operation was continuing. To stay out of alleyways controlled by snipers and militants with explosives, the soldiers went from house to house by knocking down walls between the flimsy shelters, residents said.

At least 10 houses were destroyed, residents said. Suleiman Abu-Asab, 52, said 12 soldiers broke down a door and entered two building where seven families, including 30 children, live.

``They spent all night there,'' he said. ``When we returned in the morning after they left, we found the house badly damaged totally, much of the furniture burned and even their empty food boxes still inside.''

Troops destroyed the house of Nasser Awais, commander of the Al Aqsa Brigades militia in the camp, the Fatah-linked group that has claimed responsibility for many recent attacks.

Awais said he and most of his followers have slipped out of Balata, but would continue fighting. ``They (the Israeli troops) couldn't arrest or kill me, so they took revenge by demolishing my house,'' Awais said in a telephone interview from his hiding place. ``The whole campaign against the camp has failed because they didn't arrest anyone and didn't find any of the weapons they wanted.''

Yitzhak, the Israeli commander, said troops seized dozens of explosive devices, mines and some weapons.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said the assault on the camps would help prevent attacks on Israelis. ``This is for the sake of our way of life here, in malls, in cities, in streets,'' he told Israel Army Radio. ``The classic strategy of Israeli military campaigns has been to move the fighting into enemy territory.''

Palestinians charged that Israel had escalated its aggression.

``By its brutal attacks against the Palestinian refugee camps in Nablus and Jenin, the Israeli government has declared its true intentions,'' said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo in a statement.

The Palestinian leadership issued a statement charging that Israel's government favors violence over peace efforts. ``Our people has the right to resistance and to defend its land,'' the statement said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Israel has the right to defend itself, but he expressed concern over the incursions. ``We have been in touch with the Israeli government to urge that utmost restraint be exercised in order to avoid harm to the civilian population,'' he said.

The 27 refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip house Palestinians displaced in Mideast wars dating to Israel's founding in 1948. Though officially designated as refugee camps, most are made up of concrete-block houses and apartment buildings that have gone up over a period of decades, considered temporary shelter for the refugees and three generations of descendants.
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