RAMALLAH, West Bank – Chiseling away at Israel's attempt to isolate Yasser Arafat, Jordan's foreign minister met with the Palestinian leader Thursday, while a U.N. envoy toured the battle-torn Jenin refugee camp, saying conditions there were "horrifying beyond belief."
Israeli officials said they were winding down their 3-week-old military offensive, but that troops would continue encircling Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — until standoffs there over the surrender of wanted Palestinians were resolved.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher met with Arafat at the Palestinian leader's shell-scarred government complex in Ramallah on Thursday, becoming the second high-level visitor in two days. On Wednesday, Arafat held talks there with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who left the region without a truce deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had opposed Powell's visit to Arafat, calling it a "tragic mistake" to break the isolation of the Palestinian leader, who has been surrounded by Israeli troops since the West Bank offensive began.
Muasher was accompanied by Arafat's neurologist, Dr. Ashraf al-Kurdi, who has said the Palestinian leader's regular checkup was four months overdue. Several years ago, Arafat developed tremors in his lower lip. Doctors have said it was a nervous tic. Media reports have speculated he suffers from Parkinson's disease.
Jenin camp in the northern West Bank was the scene of the deadliest fighting in the offensive launched by Israel to crush Palestinian militias after a string of suicide bombings. Israeli soldiers battled Palestinian gunmen in the camp for days, and Israeli shelling and bulldozers reduced large areas in the center of the camp to piles of rubble.
U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen took stock of the devastation on Thursday.
"We are shocked," he said alongside his delegation after the tour. "This is horrifying beyond belief. Just seeing this area, it looks like there's been an earthquake here, and the stench of death is over many places where we are standing."
The envoy said he came across the body of a boy who appeared to be about 12 years old and had been burnt. "Evidently, there are lots of other corpses. And the stench is telling its own story around here," Roed-Larsen said.
Palestinians claim hundreds of people may be buried beneath rubble in the center of the camp. Israel says the casualties were much lower, and that those killed were mainly gunmen.
Roed-Larsen demanded that Israel give immediate access to aid organizations and the United Nations so they could mount a "major humanitarian operation." Red Cross and Red Crescent teams have been operating in the camp since Monday, but say they do not have the equipment they need to recover bodies and to mount an extensive search for any survivors.
Sharon's chief foreign policy adviser, Danny Ayalon, said Israel was already allowing some aid teams to operate. He said more would be let in shortly, and that troops would be out of the camp "very soon."
On Wednesday, troops withdrew from parts of the adjacent town of Jenin and were expected to pull out of the West Bank's largest city, Nablus, within a few days. However, troops on Thursday raided a West Bank village near the town of Tulkarem, carrying out arrests and searching for explosives, the military said.
Despite the momentary lull, Israelis and Palestinians were pessimistic following Powell's failure to negotiate a cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal.
"I regret that the mission did not end in a more promising way," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio. "The situation is at its most tense."
Arafat warned that his continued confinement by Israeli troops would hurt Mideast stability and demanded the United States help end his confinement.
Sharon said Israeli withdrawals would take place within a week, but that troops would maintain their siege at the Church of the Nativity and Arafat's Ramallah compound until suspected militants there surrender.
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said a round of negotiations on the church standoff, initially scheduled for Thursday, was canceled by Israel.
More than 200 armed men, including 30 militiamen and dozens of Palestinian policemen, have been holed up since April 2 inside the church, which marks the site where tradition says Jesus was born. Israel insists the armed men surrender, with the option of trial or exile. The Palestinians have rejected the proposal.
On Wednesday, a Palestinian who left the church was shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers. The military said two suspected militants left the church, approached soldiers and ignored orders to halt. The soldiers opened fire, wounding one. He was taken to a hospital for treatment. The other returned to the church, the military said. Also, a priest who has taken ill was moved to a hospital, the military said.
Arafat has been confined to Ramallah since December — and to a few rooms of his offices since Israel began its offensive March 29.
Israel alleges that several wanted people are hiding in Arafat's compound, including the assassins of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi and the mastermind of a large shipment of Iranian arms to the Palestinian areas.
Since the fighting began 18 months ago, 1,508 people on the Palestinian side and 468 on the Israeli side have been confirmed killed, but the Palestinian death toll from fighting this week, mainly in the Jenin refugee camp, was still unclear.