The smell of death hangs heavy in the sultry air. Mountains of rubble tower over the heads of people picking their way along dust-blown pathways that once were busy streets bisecting the heart of this Palestinian refugee camp.

Palestinians say what happened here last week was a massacre. Israel says it was a fierce battle with Palestinian gunmen — one waged in an area of the Jenin refugee camp that had been nearly emptied of inhabitants by the time the devastating final assault began.

On Tuesday, neither a closed here.

The camp, adjoining the town of Jenin in the northern West Bank, was the scene of the fiercest fighting of Israel's 2-week-old military offensive.

Israel says the operation is aimed at rooting out militants who plan and stage suicide bombings and other terror attacks against Israelis — and that the camp at Jenin, a shantytown of concrete buildings and winding hillside streets, was one of the militants' biggest strongholds.

The Palestinians say thousands of people are unaccounted for in the camp and that hundreds could be dead beneath dozens of wrecked buildings in the middle of the camp. Mohammed Rashid, a senior adviser to Yasser Arafat, said there were more than 3,000 people missing.

"We are not saying everyone was killed, we are not saying all of them are injured, but definitely some of them are killed," he said. "We just don't know where they are." Other Palestinian officials have put the likely death toll in the hundreds.

Israeli officials say they believe the number of dead is far lower. Soldiers, they say, have recovered or located about three dozen bodies, mostly those of combatants, and some Israeli officials said they did not expect the toll to grow substantially beyond that.

"We estimate it is in the dozens, according to a check we succeeded in doing," Israel's head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi, told reporters Tuesday. He said some bodies had been booby-trapped with explosives, hampering efforts to remove them.

The recovery effort has barely begun. The Red Crescent said seven bodies were brought out Monday, its first day of operations inside the camp, and one other was recovered Tuesday. The putrefying remains of at least four corpses could be seen Tuesday in the camp's center -- including a twisted, burned body on the steps inside one shot-up building, two yellowed feet protruding from the rubble of a house.

The stench wafted over a wide area, borne on the hot, sticky air, but it was difficult to tell whether it was emanating from beneath the rubble or from bodies left out in the open.

While the number of dead remains a mystery, the magnitude of the destruction is an unassailable reality. In what had been a neighborhood in the middle of the camp, where concrete houses stood so close together that two people could barely pass in the alleyways, a zone roughly the size of two football fields was pounded into ruin.

But no one knows yet whether the enormous property damage — the pulverizing of perhaps 60 homes and apartment buildings, each of them two to four stories high — translates into a correspondingly large loss of life.

"How can you assess something like this?" said Jessica Barry of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who was in the camp on Tuesday, gesturing toward mountains of wreckage strewn with dust-covered belongings: books, shoes, cooking pots. "It's too vast for one organization to do."

Aid workers finally allowed into the camp for the first time Monday say they have not yet brought the equipment needed to dig through the giant piles of wreckage. Illustrating the dangers, a huge slab of concrete hanging by twisted metal rods from the side of a half-collapsed building slammed to the ground as journalists talked to a man nearby.

No reliable head count has been made of those who were inside the camp when the assault began or in the days immediately following. Many of the camp's 13,000 people fled after the Israeli assault started here April 3, when the camp was pounded by Israeli tank shells and helicopter-fired missiles.

Hundreds of families were separated in the tumult — fighting-age men were taken prisoner in mass Israeli roundups, some of the wounded eventually were brought or made their way to hospitals for treatment, and many women and children took shelter with relatives in outlying villages.

Many now said they have no idea where relatives and friends are. Communication between members of these divided families has been nearly impossible, except by word of mouth, because there is no telephone service and the batteries of most mobile telephones have run out, with no electricity to recharge them.

Israel says from the beginning of the onslaught, it conducted sweeps of the camp, using loudspeakers to order families to leave. Camp residents confirmed that — but many said they hid in their homes, afraid to come out.

"My father came out of the house — he is an old man of 80 — and they shot him in the hand and leg," said Jamal Ali Fayed, a 34-year-old science teacher. He said he managed to get his wife and two children out, and believes they reached a neighboring village, but is not sure. By the time they were safely away, he could not find his wounded father.

"I am asking, asking everyone," he said helplessly Tuesday, surveying the debris.

Residents said the worst of the Israeli onslaught came after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed one week ago in an elaborate ambush in a booby-trapped building. It was the deadliest single incident for Israel's army since the start of the current conflict nearly 19 months ago.

After that, people said, Israeli helicopters and tanks rained withering fire on the camp's central district. Then bulldozers were brought in to knock down buildings.

Israel has maintained throughout this offensive that it tried to ensure buildings were empty of civilians before demolishing them, but several families said they had little or no warning before their houses began falling down around them.

"They didn't call out to us at all, but when the bulldozer rammed the house next to ours, we just ran," said Arwah Abdullah, a 30-year-old mother of three children under age 5. "I was crying, shouting for my babies, my mother. Everything collapsed."

In the aftermath of the fighting, Jenin has become a rallying cry throughout the Arab world. Newspaper accounts and commentaries widely compared what happened in the camp to the 1982 killings of hundreds of Palestinian civilians by Christian militiamen at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut. An Israeli inquiry found Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then the defense minister, indirectly responsible for those deaths.

Lebanon's leading daily An-Nahar said over the weekend that the "smoke of Jenin camp settles to reveal a major massacre." Other Arab newspapers spoke of genocide and atrocities, always hammering home the Sharon connection.

But inside the camp itself, it was hard for people to grasp what happened. Almost everyone talked freely of having seen mass graves or houses full of bodies — but upon questioning, acknowledged the information was secondhand, from a friend or relative. Many people turned to arriving aid workers and journalists, asking how many had died.

Even among the Israeli troops patrolling the camp's perimeter, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, there was curiosity and confusion about what had gone on during their own assault.

One young soldier, surprised at a corner on the camp's outskirts, pointed his weapon at approaching journalists, then lowered it when they explained they were leaving after visiting the camp's center.

"What," he asked, "did you see there?"