GAZA STRIP, Gaza Strip – Israeli tanks and troops stormed into a Gaza Strip refugee camp late Monday and waged a fierce gunbattle that killed at least 17 Palestinians, overshadowing Israel's decision to end Yasser Arafat's confinement.
The raid, which raged past midnight, was one of several major Israeli army operations that left 23 Palestinians dead Monday. In two sweeps for militants in the West Bank, Israeli troops rounded up more than 1,000 Palestinian men.
Israel sent tanks into Ramallah early Tuesday, hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced he was lifting a travel ban on Arafat that kept the Palestinian leader confined to the West Bank town for three months, holed up in his headquarters there.
Most of the casualties came as 20 Israeli tanks supported by helicopter gunships roared into northern Gaza late Monday, exchanging heavy fire with Palestinian security forces and gunmen on the edge of the Jebaliya refugee camp.
The Israeli army said the raid came shortly after Palestinian militants fired mortar rounds at a Jewish settlement. It said nobody was injured by the shells.
The tanks and helicopters fired heavy machine guns, while troops seized several buildings on the edge of Jebaliya and took up positions on the rooftops, witnesses said.
Elderly people living on the edge of the camp fled from the front line while young gunmen ran toward it. Amid the nonstop sound of gunfire, mosque loudspeakers called on Palestinians to resist.
Ambulances rushed toward the camp but rescue workers could not reach all of the wounded and some lay bleeding in the streets, witnesses said. Dozens of Palestinians, some in pajamas and others on donkey carts, fled the camp for a nearby Gaza City neighborhood.
"They are killing us," said Laila Ayoub, 38, carrying a baby girl in her arms. "They used helicopters to fire on us while we were leaving."
At least 17 Palestinians were killed and more than 75 were injured, doctors said. Most were from Palestinian security forces; others were civilians, they said.
Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the operation was aimed at finding rockets and that civilians were not targeted.
Jebaliya is the largest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, and anti-Israel sentiment is high. Several of the Palestinians who have carried out suicide attacks during the conflict killing dozens of Israelis, have come from Jebaliya and other parts of northern Gaza.
Witnesses said Israeli forces destroyed several buildings in the camp, some used by Palestinian security, and blew up a metal works. Tanks were pulling back but surrounded the camp early Tuesday, they said.
Early Tuesday, at least 10 tanks entered Ramallah from four directions, trading fire with Palestinian gunmen as they moved toward the center of the city, Palestinian security officials said. Attack helicopters hovered overhead.
A senior Israeli army commander who spoke on condition of anonymity said soldiers also moved into the Amari refugee camp next to Ramallah. He said the aim of the operation was to prevent terrorists from the Ramallah area from attacking Israel.
He said the army had no intention of targeting Arafat.
Foreign reporters working in a hotel across from the camp said the building came under fire from Israeli soldiers. The military said it was working to stop the gunfire.
On Monday in the West Bank, Israel's army carried out sweeps of the Palestinian town of Qalqilya and a Bethlehem refugee camp, handcuffing and blindfolding Palestinian men as it searched for militants in the wake of attacks against Israelis.
With the United States leading an international effort to reduce Mideast tensions, Sharon said Arafat — confined to his Ramallah headquarters for three months — could now move around the Palestinian territories, though he will still need Israel's permission to go abroad.
Palestinians have described Sharon's recent concessions as cosmetic, saying they are intended to deflect criticism from the tough Israeli military actions.
"There are no positive intentions behind this decision," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said of the announcement about Arafat. "What is needed from the Israeli government is to immediately stop its crimes and massacres."
Sharon has softened some positions ahead of Thursday's arrival of U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, who is trying to end 17 months of fighting. More than 130 Palestinians and 50 Israelis have been killed in the first 11 days of March, the bloodiest period since the fighting erupted in September 2000.
The Israeli leader said he is no longer insisting on a week of complete calm before moving ahead with a U.S. truce plan. Also, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met senior Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia on Monday, though no breakthroughs were reported.
Many Israelis are demanding tougher action.
Holding signs reading, "Bring down the Palestinian Authority," and "Defeat Arafat," protesters in Tel Aviv called for urged Sharon to intensify the military operations. Israeli television estimated the crowd at 50,000.
The most hawkish party in Sharon's coalition government, the National Union bloc, was threatening to resign Tuesday to protest his gestures. It has demanded that Israel expel Arafat and recapture the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The leader of the militant group Hamas, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, threatened more attacks in Israel. "We have no choice but to kill the occupier, to kill him everywhere, every village and every city. There's no other way to defend ourselves," he said.
Arafat's virtual house arrest was lifted after Palestinian security forces complied with an Israeli demand and arrested five suspects in the October killing of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.
As in the past, the Palestinian leader will need Israeli approval to travel outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It will no longer be routinely granted, said Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin.
"If there are puddles of blood everywhere, it will make a difference," Gissin said.
A big test will come this month. Arafat wants to attend an Arab summit March 26-28 in Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia plans to present a Mideast peace proposal. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Israel should seriously consider letting him go.
Arafat did not leave his Ramallah compound Monday and Palestinian officials said they didn't know when he would. Arafat aides said he received Ron Schlicher, the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, and spoke by phone with Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Arafat called on the United States to pressure Israel to halt its military offensive, spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.
On Sunday, Israeli helicopters destroyed Arafat's Gaza City headquarters in retaliation for a Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Israel has also pummeled Arafat offices in the West Bank towns of Nablus and Jenin.
In the West Bank on Monday, Israel widened its military offensive against the Palestinians hours after a Palestinian gunmen fired on a banquet hall in the Israeli port city of Ashdod during a bar mitzvah celebration, wounding a 13-year-old boy.
Before dawn, Israeli troops and armored vehicles stormed into Qalqilya and the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem.
In Dheisheh, soldiers announced over bullhorns in broken Arabic that all males aged 15 to 45 must surrender to Israeli forces. About 500 were detained, stripped to their undershirts, handcuffed and blindfolded, the army and witnesses said. About 600 men were held in a schoolyard in Qalqilya, soldiers and residents said.
Also in Qalqilya, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at several security installations and an office of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the faction that claimed responsibility for Zeevi's killing, Qalqilya governor Mustafa Malki said.
Overall, Israeli gunfire killed five Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza during the day Monday. A Palestinian security officer was killed by Israeli fire in southern Gaza on Monday night at the same time the fighting was taking place at Jebaliya.
Israel has raided several Palestinian towns and refugee camps in recent days, saying it has detained militants, seized weapons and discovered bomb-making labs. The Palestinians say the Israeli actions have caused many civilian casualties and added to the bitter atmosphere.