Despite US truce efforts, Israel yesterday intensified its offensive against Palestinian militants -- the largest military operation in 20 years -- and killed 28 Palestinians in raids on sprawling refugee camps, the West Bank's commercial center and other targets.
In apparent retaliation, eight Israeli motorists were killed in shooting attacks -- seven in northern Israel, near the border with Lebanon, and one in the West Bank. In the attack near Lebanon, Israeli troops killed two gunmen and exchanged fire with a third for more than an hour. It was not immediately clear whether the gunmen were Palestinians or Lebanese guerrillas.
Israel launched its military operation against Palestinian militants last week, in response to a series of deadly attacks on Israeli civilians. Israeli security sources said yesterday that most combat soldiers in Israel's standing army and some reserve troops -- a force of many thousands -- were deployed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the biggest operation since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In the West Bank town of Ramallah alone, dozens of tanks were patrolling the streets.
Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, a moderate, said she expected the strikes to be halted by the time US envoy Anthony Zinni arrives in the region tomorrow. Two previous truce missions by Zinni were scuttled by violence.
As the fighting raged, two Cabinet ministers from the ultra-nationalist National Union party submitted their resignations, saying they felt that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's actions against the Palestinian Authority were not tough enough. Sharon retains a solid parliamentary majority -- 75 out of 120 seats -- despite the protest.
In yesterday's fighting, the Jebaliya refugee camp -- the largest with 100,000 residents and a stronghold of the Islamic militant group Hamas -- came under heavy Israeli fire from tanks and helicopter gunships during a three-hour incursion. The camp was plunged into darkness when Israeli fire struck a transformer.
Hundreds of Palestinian gunmen exchanged fire with Israeli forces, and at least 18 Palestinians were killed and 75 wounded by Israeli fire, doctors said. Many civilians, some in their pajamas, fled the fighting, moving toward nearby Gaza City on foot and in donkey carts. "They are killing us," said Laila Ayoub, 38, carrying a baby girl in her arms. "They used helicopters to fire on us while we were leaving."
Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold said Israel was showing restraint and "not using the full strength of its air force against the refugee camps."
Israeli tanks also took control of the West Bank town Ramallah and the adjacent Amari refugee camp, where fierce gunbattles were reported. Five Palestinians, including two policemen, two unarmed guards at the parliament building and a taxi driver, were killed by Israeli fire, doctors said.
Several tanks were deployed outside the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The takeover came only a day after Sharon announced that Arafat, who had been confined to Ramallah for the past three months by Israel, was free to move in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli troops announced over loudspeakers that boys and men between the ages of 16 and 40 must come out of their homes and surrender to Israeli forces in Ramallah. Local TV stations urged the men not to comply.