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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 17:07 GMT
Israel in massive new offensive
A masked Palestinian holds an anti-tank rocket propelled grenade (RPG) in Ramallah
Some Palestinian fighters offered resistance before fleeing
The Israeli army has sent thousands of troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships into Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a massive operation to round up militants.

What they are doing now is transforming every Palestinian into a potential fighter

Hanan Ashrawi
Palestinian Legislative Council
Thirty Palestinians are reported to have been killed and hundreds taken into custody in what BBC Middle East correspondent James Reynolds describes as Israel's biggest ground offensive for 20 years.

The army said its aim was to arrest militants and dismantle what it called the "infrastructure of terror" - such as bomb-making workshops.

Palestinian officials accused Israel of starting to reoccupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip so that no progress could come from US envoy Anthony Zinni's mission to the region which begins on Thursday.

Six Israelis have also been killed and seven wounded in a roadside ambush near the Israeli-Lebanese border. Two gunmen, reportedly wearing Israeli army uniforms, were killed while another two escaped.

Other developments:

  • About 150 Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles invaded the main West Bank city of Ramallah - five Palestinians killed.
  • UN chief Kofi Annan called for peace and launched a stinging attack on Israel's occupation and military campaign.
  • Palestinian gunmen shot dead an Israeli driver near the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Sefer in the West Bank.
  • Two Israeli cabinet ministers submitted their resignations over the government's "soft line" on the Palestinian leadership.
  • About 100 Palestinians taken prisoner as Israeli army occupied Gaza town of Wadi al-Salqa

The Israeli offensive began overnight in the Gaza Strip when tanks backed by Apache helicopters rolled into the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza.

Enlarge image Click here for a detailed map of the West Bank and Gaza

In the resulting gun battle, at least 18 Palestinians died - four of them members of the militant group Hamas - and many were wounded. Civilians fled the area in terror.

As the first funeral processions wound their way through Gaza City, Apache helicopters were in the air over Khan Younis and Rafah, while ground troops continued an incursion into the centre of the Gaza Strip.

A further four Palestinians died in Khan Younis, including two brothers killed when their aluminium factory was hit by Israeli missiles.

Later on Tuesday morning, the Israeli army seized control of most of the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israeli tanks in Ramallah
It is the biggest Israeli operation since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon
Eyewitnesses said that more than 100 Israeli tanks were involved in the operation, which has seen the deaths of at least five Palestinians.

House-to-house searches were being conducted throughout the city, but the main target appeared to be the al-Amari refugee camp, from where three suicide bombers - one a woman - have launched recent attacks against Israeli targets.

There were heavy exchanges of fire, and tanks moved to within 20 metres of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's West Bank headquarters.

As the Israeli tanks entered Ramallah, a Palestinian man accused of collaborating with the Israelis was killed. His body was hung by the ankles at the city's main junction.

  • Ramallah: Population 40,000. 220,000 people live in Ramallah district
  • Al-Amari refugee camp: Established in 1949. Now home to 7,273 officially registered refugees

    See also:
      Ramallah operation ups stakes

  • In several areas of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli forces are reported to have rounded up and detained Palestinian men between the ages of 16 and 60.

    Correspondents say Israeli policy appears to have moved from repeated punitive air strikes against empty Palestinian Authority buildings to operations involving troops on the ground.

    Foreign diplomats fear this development could mean the region is edging towards all-out war.

    Fears of a new front opening up were heightened by Tuesday's ambush near the Israel-Lebanese border, which Israel says was carried out by "infiltrators" from Lebanon, although the Lebanese Government has strenuously denied this.

    'Terrorist offensive'

    Ramallah-based politician Hanan Ashrawi accused Israel of terrorising the "captive" Palestinian population.

    Mass funeral in Gaza
    Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in the last few days
    "What they are doing now is transforming every Palestinian into a potential fighter," she told the BBC.

    The Israeli army head of operations in the West Bank, Colonel Gal Hirsch, insisted that civilians were not the target, saying recent sweeps of Palestinian areas had destroyed 20 bomb-making factories and huge quantities of explosives and scores of harnesses used by suicide bombers had been confiscated

    At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed for an end to Palestinian militant attacks on Israeli civilians, but he reserved his strongest criticism for Israel, urging it to end the "illegal occupation" in West Bank and Gaza, and its military practices which "gravely erode Israel's standing" in the world.

    Palestinian Culture Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo
    "They are shelling at anything moving"
    Spokesman for Ariel Sharon, Ranaan Gissin
    "This war was imposed on us"
    The BBC's Ben Brown
    "Whether or not you call this war, that's what it looks and sounds like"
    See also:

    12 Mar 02 | Middle East
    Annan appeal brings mixed response
    12 Mar 02 | Middle East
    Six Israelis killed in gun attack
    12 Mar 02 | Middle East
    In pictures: Israel goes in hard
    12 Mar 02 | Middle East
    Controversy over 'execution' pictures
    12 Mar 02 | Middle East
    Eyewitness: "You can just be fired on"
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