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Toll rises as Israel presses on

13 soldiers die; bus explosion kills 8, hurts 14; Sharon resolute

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff, 4/10/2002
JENIN, West Bank - In the bloodiest single day for Israeli troops in the 18-month-old Palestinian uprising, at least 13 soldiers were killed and seven wounded, one critically, during intense fighting yesterday for control of the Jenin refugee camp, where a six-day battle has already claimed more than 150 Palestinian lives.

This morning, a bomb exploded on a commuter bus near the northern city of Haifa during rush hour in the first apparent radical Palestinian counterattack in Israel since the Israelis" incursion into the West Bank. The blast killed at least eight people and injured 14, the Ha"aretz newspaper reported.

The deaths of the 13 soldiers shocked and angered Israel, which vowed to press ahead with its armed incursions in the West Bank, and threatened to make this week"s peace mission by US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell all the more difficult.

The soldiers died amid flames, smoke, and confusion after a suicide bomber charged them in a narrow alleyway and set off charges strapped around his waist, according to the military. The initial blast triggered booby-trap bombs in surrounding buildings. Then Palestinian militiamen opened fire on the trapped infantrymen from nearby rooftops.

The heavy loss of life occurred on the day Israel marked the World War II Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said yesterday that the Jewish nation is in a fight for its life and will continue the military campaign in the face of international outrage.

""This is a difficult day. There was a very tough battle against the terrorist organizations,"" Sharon said. ""This is a battle for the survival of the Jewish people, for survival of the state of Israel.""

In Jenin, heavy machine-gun fire racked the twisting roads while hovering Apache helicopter gunships slammed missiles into Palestinian militia positions. Armored military bulldozers plowed through neighborhoods to open ""fields of fire"" for advancing Israeli assault troops.

For the first time, F-16 fighter bombers ripped through the smoke-stained skies over this city in the northern West Bank, though they did not appear to fire air-to-ground rockets or drop bombs. The presence of low-flying air support, however, illustrated how Israel"s attempt to root out Palestinian militants entrenched in the squalid and densely populated refugee camp has turned into a full-scale battle.

""This is the Stalingrad of Palestine,"" said camp official Adnan Sabbah, referring to the brutal World War II battle in which the Russians smashed a much-superior German Army. ""The fighters rise from the rubble. They shoot and they plant explosives. Then they disappear into the rubble. The fight is until martyrdom or victory.""

At least 20 Israelis have died during the six days of fighting in Jenin. Many of the more than 150 Palestinians killed in ferocious house-to-house combat were civilians, Palestinians say; Israel insists nearly all were fighters, killed with weapons in their hands or ""bomb belts"" cinched around their waists.

In any event, it seemed unlikely today that Israel"s offensive in the West Bank will be over when Powell arrives in Jerusalem later this week in search of a peace settlement that seems increasingly remote.

Despite Israel"s claim that it had pulled forces from two embattled cities in partial compliance with President Bush"s insistence on an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank, it appeared yesterday that troops and tanks had merely redeployed around Qalqilya and Tulkarem.

Sharon said earlier in the week that Israel would create ""buffer zones"" in the West Bank to prevent suicide bombers and other terrorists from continuing attacks on restaurants, hotels, and other civilian targets in the Jewish state. The campaign, Operation Defensive Shield, was launched after a series of suicide attacks killed scores of Israelis in late March.

Israeli generals insist they need four to eight weeks to kill or capture hundreds of Palestinian fighters loyal to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who remains in his besieged headquarters in Ramallah. The compound is occupied by Israeli commandos except for a few rooms where Arafat has been trapped without electricity or running water since Israeli troops and armor roared into the West Bank on March 29.

Israel"s politicians are anxious to placate the United States, the country"s most important ally and largest provider of foreign aid. But Sharon, a hard-nosed former general, has indicated that he believes Israeli lives will be at risk if the government pushes the military into an early pullout.

The offensive actually widened yesterday as Israeli soldiers raided the town of Dura, south of Hebron, engaging Palestinian gunmen in a short but fierce firefight.

Israeli intelligence officers also rounded up males between the ages of 15 and 40 for questioning, as has been done in other parts of the West Bank. In all, more than 1,500 Palestinians, including what Israel says are 500 ""hard-core"" terrorists, have been arrested during a sweep that has drawn international condemnation.

In Nablus, meanwhile, the whipcrack of gunfire echoed through ruined streets as a battle for control of the city"s ancient Casbah, or old quarter, entered its sixth day. Helicopters shedding flares - meant to decoy shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles - thudded overhead while Israeli battle tanks and armored personnel carriers ripped through the heavily damaged city center.

Hunched Palestinian fighters could be seen scurrying from postion to position, and small-arms fire was occasionally drowned by heavy machine-gun bursts from Israeli tanks and troop carriers.

A reporter from the Globe and two British journalists, traveling in a car plainly marked as a press vehicle, were fired upon by Israeli troops, the rounds hitting close overhead. A French television cameraman was shot in the throat several blocks away; it was unclear who had fired.

Except for combatants, the streets of Nablus were eerily empty, torn by tank treads. The facades of buildings showed heavy damage. The Israeli advance into the city occurred so rapidly and with so little warning that few people had a chance to escape. Families have huddled in their homes, praying for an end to the fighting.

""People have had to bury the dead in their gardens,"" said Hader Quqa, an elderly candy maker trapped in his home with his wife, daughter, and son.

""We have plenty of candy to eat and tea to wash it down, but nothing else,"" he said. ""We cannot even go out for food. The Israelis go by with bullhorns saying, `Anyone who leans out the window, we will shoot. Anyone who shows a face, we will shoot."""

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/10/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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