JENIN, West Bank – Israel will bury Palestinian gunmen killed in the Jenin refugee camp during a 2-week-old hunt for militants in the West Bank, the army said Friday, prompting fresh Palestinian allegations Israel had killed hundreds of civilians and was trying to hide the bodies.
Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey denied the Palestinian accusations of a cover-up, but said collection and burial of the bodies in Jenin would begin Friday. Israeli army officials have estimated 100 Palestinians were killed in the camp during eight days of the deadliest fighting of the military campaign. Palestinians claim the toll is much higher.
On the Israeli side, 23 soldiers were killed in Jenin, 13 in an elaborate ambush involving explosives and gunfire, by far the costliest military encounter for Israel in 18 months of conflict. The Israeli military said Thursday that 4,185 Palestinians had been detained during the operation.
Israeli forces swept into the West Bank on March 29, seeking to crush militant networks responsible for deadly attacks on Israeli civilians over the past 18 months. Despite U.S. demands for an immediate Israeli pullout, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said the operation will continue until the task is complete.
Sharon, at a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell after their much-awaited meeting Friday said "Israel is conducting a war against the Palestinian infrastructure of terror and hopes to end it as soon as possible."
Powell said the United States understands Israel's need to defend itself, but added that "eventually the parties must talk, the parties must have negotiations." Powell said he did not come away from the meeting with a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal.
In Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the situation is so serious that an international force must be sent quickly to the Palestiian territories. Israel has rejected calls for any international force, a longtime Palestinian demand, but has said it would accept a small group American monitors.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the Israeli operation put off for a while the prospect of further Palestinian militant attacks, but did not end them.
"We won't be able to prevent them from committing terror attacks," Ben-Eliezer told the Maariv newspaper. "We are delaying, we are suspending, we are destroying and they will have to raise a new terror leadership."
Powell was expected to meet Saturday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his headquarters in Ramallah, where he's been confined with aides to three rooms by Israeli forces who invaded the compound two weeks ago. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher was to pay Arafat a visit on Friday.
Kitrey said the bodies from the Jenin fighting would be buried at a special cemetery in the Jordan Valley where Lebanese fighters killed in cross-boarder clashes have been buried in unmarked graves.
"The terrorists we found with guns we are going to bury in what we call the enemy cemetery site," Kitrey told The Associated Press. "The civilians we will try to give back to the Palestinians."
Kitrey alleged Palestinian Red Crescent officials have refused an Israeli offer to retrieve bodies from the camp. Mohammed Abu Ghali, director of Jenin Hospital near the camp, denied the claims, saying the military has not permitted Palestinian medics into the camp.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat repeated accusations the Israelis were trying to cover up the killing of civilians. "They want to hide their crimes, the bodies of the little children and women," Erekat told The Associated Press.
Erekat said that Powell should visit the Jenin camp and witness the "war crimes."
Though the army reported sporadic fighting in the Jenin area, about three dozen armed men -- apparently the last significant holdouts -- surrendered to Israeli troops on Thursday.
Kitrey told Israel Radio on Friday that "hundreds" were killed in Jenin, but the military quickly called news organizations to clarify that he had meant to say hundreds were dead and injured.
Jenin effectively has been closed to journalists and aid agencies during most of the fighting, so allegations of massacres and mass burials could not be independently confirmed. Journalists who entered the camp briefly Thursday saw no bodies, and the army would not explain where they were.
The devastation from a week of heavy battles was evident in the Jenin refugee camp, a poverty-stricken, dusty collection of cement-block buildings.
Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers crashed through narrow alleyways, shaving the fronts off buildings, revealing signs of the simple lifestyle of the 14,000 refugees who live there -- a tea service on a bookshelf; beds, tables and clothes buried under knee-deep slabs of fractured concrete.
Although Israeli forces have been pulling out of some villages, they briefly moved into a new one: Kufr Kalil near the northern city of Nablus, where troops made arrests before leaving, the military said in a statement. Also, the statement said, "activities in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Dura and Dahariyah, south of Hebron, continue."
Palestinians were turning the Jenin battle into a symbol of their resistance against the Israeli occupation, praising the weeklong stand of the gunmen. In Gaza, hundreds demonstrated in sympathy, and Israel TV reported a family named its newborn "Jenin."
Palestinian officials have said they would not enter into cease-fire talks until Israel pulls out of all Palestinian-controlled territory. That would include Arafat's headquarters in the town of Ramallah, one of the first targets of the Israeli offensive.
Arafat has been confined to three rooms of his office building for two weeks, at times without electricity and water. Videotape from the building obtained Thursday showed Arafat's characteristic facial stubble transformed into a white beard, and his aides, also grizzled, appearing wan.
On Friday, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher were expected to pay a visit to Arafat, said Tawfik Tirawi, head of Palestinian intelligence in the West Bank.
Israeli forces, meanwhile, remained inside Nablus and Bethlehem, where a tense standoff continued at the Church of the Nativity. Israeli troops encircled the compound, where about 200 Palestinian gunmen are holed up.
On Friday, Israeli officials hinted at flexibility over a solution in the standoff. Without mentioning the surrender demand, army spokesman Kitrey told Israel Radio that he hoped a deal could be worked out "that would be beneficial to both sides."
Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said the bottom line was that the armed Palestinians must stand trial in Israel. "There are all kinds of proposals, who would receive them, how they would leave," he said Friday, "but they must be put on trial in Israel."
Gissin said one of the ideas was to allow the gunmen to turn themselves over to British police.
Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, which has not been part of the latest Israeli operation, an armed Palestinian went through the workers' line at the Erez crossing point into Israel early Friday and opened fire, killing an Israeli border police officer and a Palestinian worker, and wounding four other Israelis before he was shot dead, the Israeli army said.
The militant Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility in a telephone call to The Associated Press.