Israeli Forces Pull Out of One Refugee Camp, Search Another

Israeli troops pulled out of one Palestinian refugee camp Saturday, but pressed ahead with a search for militants and weapons in the densely populated Balata refugee camp for a third day.

Israeli forces left the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, but 20 miles to the north they carried on with their operation in the Balata camp on the edge of Nablus, Palestinian security officials and the Israeli army said.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the Israeli incursions which began Thursday, and called for the United States and Europe to press for a halt the operations.

"They have to understand that all these crimes against our people cannot force our people to give," Arafat told reporters Friday.

Overall, 19 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in clashes Thursday and Friday, as Israel entered the refugee camps for the first time in 17 months of fighting.

Israel had been reluctant to enter the camps, where it is difficult or impossible for tanks and other armored vehicles to move through narrow, congested streets. But Israel said it acted because the camps had become strongholds for militants who were attacking Israel.

Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, a 27-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed early Saturday when Israeli tanks fired rounds at the town of Beit Hanoun, north of Gaza City, Palestinian security sources said.

In the Balata refugee camp, Israeli soldiers scrambled along the ground, going up to houses and shouting in Arabic for Palestinians inside to open them. Some doors were kicked in or blown down with grenades, other times soldiers entered by smashing walls.

Once inside, they searched for militants and weapons. The army said it had confiscated dozens of bombs, mines and guns. Soldiers threw grenades into some houses as they left, reporters at the scene said.

"They came in, turned everything upside down, then left," said Hassan Hashash, 57, in his home with five children, three women and an elderly blind man.

The camp has been cut off from the rest of Nablus for three days now and food supplies were running low.

Most of the militants were believed to have slipped out of the camp, where 20,000 Palestinians live.

Nasser Awais, a militia leader in Balata who is sought by Israel, said he and most of his followers left Thursday. Awais' home was demolished by Israeli troops Friday.

"They came and forced my family out and used explosives," Awais said in a telephone interview from his hiding place. "They couldn't arrest me or kill me so they took revenge by demolishing my house."

While the Israeli troops pulled out of the Jenin refugee camp early Saturday, they remained on the outskirts of the nearby town of Jenin.

In the refugee camp Saturday, residents found the body of Mohammed Mufid, 22, on a street. He'd been shot in the head and Israeli forces were believed responsible, hospital officials said. Relatives of the man said he had a history of mental illness.

At one point, about 250 Palestinian gunmen were surrounded by soldiers but they fled into the adjacent town of Jenin. It took them two hours to leave the camp without the soldiers noticing, one gunman told The Associated Press by telephone

Several Israeli military commentators said the operation in the refugee camps was futile and dangerous, but Israeli government officials said it would help prevent future attacks on Israelis.

"The classic strategy of Israeli military campaigns has been to move the fighting into enemy territory," Israeli Cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Army Radio on Friday.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said with the "brutal attacks against the Palestinian refugee camps in Nablus and Jenin, the Israeli government has declared its true intentions."

He also said there would be no Israeli-Palestinian meetings for now. The sides held a pair of security meetings this past week, but the atmosphere was confrontational and no progress was made toward ending the fighting.

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.