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Israeli forces move to new villages
Associated Press photo Police officers and rescue workers take a covered body on a stretcher from an exploded bus on a main road near the port city of Haifa Wednesday. A suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his body blew up the crowded bus during morning rush hour Wednesday, killing at least eight people and wounding 14.

Associated Press

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) - Israel pulled out of two dozen small towns and villages in the West Bank on Thursday, but took over other Palestinian areas, sending mixed signals ahead of a truce mission by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he would not end the offensive in the West Bank until Palestinian militias have been crushed.

In the Jenin refugee camp, scene of the deadliest fighting in Israel's two-week campaign, three dozen armed men, apparently the last holdouts, surrendered to Israeli troops Thursday.

Reporters touring the camp Thursday encountered widespread devastation. Army bulldozers had rammed their way through narrow alleys, shearing off front walls of homes. The gaping holes provided glimpses of ordinary lives left behind - a school certificate hanging on a wall, children's beds, a bike thrown in the corner of the room, bookshelves with tea sets.

Many of the 13,000 residents of the shantytown had fled the fighting, and on Thursday streets were largely deserted. Only a few civilians were outdoors, including a woman sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of a street.

At least 140 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive, said Dr. Hussam Sherkawi, director of emergency services in the West Bank. Sherkawi said the figure was expected to rise once rescue services were allowed to enter the Jenin camp, where dozens were believed dead. Twenty-eight Israeli soldiers have been killed in the offensive, all but five of them in the Jenin fighting.

The Israeli military said it has arrested 4,185 Palestinians so far in its offensive - nearly double the figure announced two days earlier. Of those taken into custody, 121 were on Israel's wanted list, the military said.

Israeli troops entered the West Bank towns of Dahariyah and Bir Zeit and the Ein Hilmeh refugee camp Thursday and carried out arrest sweeps. A convoy of 15 Israeli tanks briefly entered the West Bank town of Tulkarem, and troops there arrested a 24-year-old Palestinian woman who, according to Israeli radio reports, was suspected of planning a suicide attack. The army had no comment.

At the same time, Israeli troops pulled out of about two dozen small towns and villages in what appeared to be a gesture ahead of Powell's arrival later Thursday.

Israel and the United States appeared at odds over two key issues - the speed of the Israeli pullback and the role of Yasser Arafat, who has been confined to a few rooms in his West Bank headquarters for the past two weeks.

Sharon has branded Arafat a terrorist and has suggested he will have no more dealings with the Palestinian leader. However, Powell said Wednesday that Arafat "is the partner that Israel will have to deal with."

Powell was to meet Saturday with Arafat at the besieged compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, despite Sharon's remarks that he would consider such a meeting a "tragic mistake."

In video footage taken in the compound Wednesday, Arafat appeared subdued, listening quietly to reports by senior advisers. His trademark stubble had grown into a beard and Arafat wore a pistol tucked into his khaki pants.

The footage showed a Cabinet meeting room severely damaged in fighting in the compound. Ceiling panels were knocked askew, molding was smashed and bullet holes scarred a wall.

Powell has floated the idea of sending American truce monitors to the region. Israel's Cabinet secretary, Gideon Saar, said Thursday that Israel had no problem with the proposal, but strongly objects to an international force.

Israeli troops and tanks rolled into West Bank towns on March 29 in an offensive triggered by Palestinian suicide bombings that have terrorized Israel. The fighting has slowed the pace of such attacks, but not halted them.

On Wednesday, a Palestinian from the Islamic militant group Hamas blew himself up on a bus in northern Israel, killing himself and eight passengers. Hamas identified the bomber as a 22-year-old resident of the Jenin refugee camp.

On Thursday, a Palestinian man was killed when explosives he was carrying went off prematurely, near a taxi stand in the West Bank town of Hebron. Several bystanders were injured.

Three more Palestinians were killed near the West Bank town of Arabe by Israeli fire. The army said they were armed militants, while Palestinians said the dead were a farmer and his two wives.

In a tour of the army command post overlooking the Jenin refugee camp Wednesday, a defiant Sharon told cheering troops Wednesday that he wouldn't end the offensive until what he described as the Palestinian terror infrastructure was dismantled.

Most of the 24 small towns and villages that Israel pulled out of overnight have not received much attention since the operation began. Some are near larger population centers with several thousand residents, but others are much smaller villages.

The partial pullback drew praise from the Bush administration, which also repeated a demand that Arafat and other Arab leaders help crack down on terrorism.

"The burden isn't Israel's alone. All parties have responsibilities," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

In the Jenin refugee camp, meanwhile, about three dozen gunmen, including two militia leaders, surrendered Thursday to Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli human rights group Betselem, which helped mediate the surrender, said a wounded 13-year-old boy was also among those who gave them themselves up. It was not clear how the boy ended up with the gunmen, said a Betselem spokesman, Lior Yavne.

The army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, said the fighting in the camp was over and army bulldozers were demolishing buildings. Kitrey would not say how many homes had been razed.

Many of the camp's residents have fled to nearby villages and the adjacent town of Jenin. The Jenin camp has been the scene of the deadliest fighting, with hundreds of armed men barricading themselves and booby-trapping buildings and alleys.

On Tuesday, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in a sophisticated ambush in the camp, the largest single combat loss sustained by Israel since 1983.

In other developments Thursday, a senior Israeli military official said an Armenian monk seriously wounded in the besieged Church of the Nativity compound in Bethlehem was apparently shot by an Israeli soldier. The soldiers mistook the monk for a Palestinian gunman, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The army initially said the monk was shot by one of the more than 200 armed Palestinians holed up in the church as troops were delivering supplies to clergymen in the compound.

Since April 2, Israel forces have been surrounding the ancient basilica, built over the site where tradition says Jesus was born.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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