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Saturday, 2 March, 2002, 06:42 GMT
Israel presses on with camps assault
Israeli troops move from house to house in Balata
Israel stormed the camps after a suicide bomb attack (AP)
Israeli forces are keeping hold on two Palestinian refugee camps despite international pressure to end a new wave of fighting that has cost 22 lives in the last two days.

At least five Palestinians and an Israeli solder were killed on Friday - as gunbattles raged from house to house and alley to alley in the crowded West Bank camps of Balata and Jenin.

Mohammed Houti, 70, looks at damage caused by Israeli troops to his house in Balata camp
Troops smashed through homes in their search for militants
One of the victims was a 10-year-old girl, who Palestinian officials said had been hit by fire from an Israeli helicopter in Jenin.

The army said the assaults were meant to root out militants and deny them a safe haven in the camps, but reports said most of the wanted men had slipped out of the camps to new hiding places.

The raids, which followed a Palestinian suicide bombing at an army checkpoint on Wednesday, have marked Israel's fiercest attacks against refugee camps in 17 months of conflict.


It's a new massacre against the Palestinian people

Yasser Arafat
Reports said house-to-house searches were carried out by troops smashing through walls of the cramped buildings - which have housed Palestinian refugee families since the creation of Israel in 1948.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat urged international action to halt what he called a "new massacre".

"I call upon the whole world to act quickly before a state of chaos engulfs the whole Middle East region," he said from the West Bank town of Ramallah, where he has been pinned down by Israel since December.

Map
The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, condemned the Israeli incursions - in which more than 150 people have also been injured - as a violation of international humanitarian law.

The United States has repeatedly urged Israel to exercise restraint but stopped short of calling for a withdrawal from the camps.

"We are in touch with the Israeli Government to urge that utmost restraint be exercised in order to avoid harm to the civilian population," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"We believe it's extremely important that every possible effort be made to avoid harm to civilians."


The next steps mean maximum efforts by the Palestinian Authority to confront violence and terror and steps by the Israeli Government to facilitate Palestinian efforts

Richard Boucher
The Palestinian Authority has said it is suspending all contacts with Israel "as long as the destructive Israeli aggression continues".

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials said a seven-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by Israeli gunfire in the village of Beit Lahya on Friday.

A military spokeswoman said the army was investigating the incident. She denied a claim by a neighbour of the boy who said he saw a soldier beckon the child towards his tank, which then opened fire.

The incursions marked the first time that Israel has stormed refugee camps since the latest uprising erupted in September 2000.

Gunman aim at Israeli troops in Balata camp
The camps are a bastion of militias linked to Arafat's Fatah movement
Clashes continued into Friday evening in Jenin, but 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the south in Balata, the fighting was said to have died down.

On Thursday, 13 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier died in fierce battles on the outskirts of the Jenin and Balata refugee camps.

Palestinian officials - and some critical Israeli commentators - suggested the raids were timed to overshadow a Saudi diplomatic initiative, which has caused some fragile hopes for peace in recent days.

The State Department spokesman said the Saudi ideas served "as a promise of better life for all the regions, should the parties find a way to end violence and once again resume their negotiations".

But he insisted above all that the Palestinian Authority must make "maximum efforts to confront violence and terror".

Pressure has been growing from the Israeli right and left for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to do more to end the Palestinian revolt against Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

An opinion poll in the Maariv newspaper showed that for the first time since Sharon's election a year ago a majority of Israelis, 53%, was dissatisfied with his performance.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"Israeli troops determined to show there is no where they cannot go"
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Arye Mekel
"Arafat has the key to this whole situation"
Palestinian Fatah leader, Hussam Khader
"We have the right to our own independent state"
See also:

01 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israel cautioned over raid
28 Feb 02 | Middle East
Saudi plan spurs Mid-East diplomacy
27 Feb 02 | Media reports
Saudi move stirs regional hopes
26 Feb 02 | Middle East
Pregnant women under fire
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