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Court says army must hand over Palestinian bodies
The Associated PressJENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank -- Israel's Supreme Court told the army Sunday that it must give the Palestinians the bodies of those killed in Jenin's refugee camp, a move that could help clear up the escalating dispute over how many Palestinians died in the fierce fighting.
Also, the army gave journalists a limited tour of the devastated camp and rejected Palestinian claims that hundreds of people, many of them civilians, were killed. The army said it has found fewer than 40 bodies after searching half of the camp, and most of those corpses belong to Palestinian gunmen.
The court also ordered the army to include workers from the Red Cross in teams searching for the bodies following more than a week of battles in the camp, the site of the heaviest combat since Israeli troops launched a West Bank offensive March 29 to track militants responsible for attacks on its civilians.
The decision came as Secretary of State Colin Powell held more than three hours of talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as part of his search for a cease-fire agreement to end the fighting.
Traveling with extremely heavy security, Powell met Arafat at the Palestinian leader's badly damaged compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and said afterward the talks were "useful and constructive" but reported no progress toward a cease-fire.
Arafat told Powell that there would be no political or security coordination with Israel before it first pulls out from towns and villages it has occupied since it began its West Bank incursions, Palestinian officials said.
During Powell's visit, periodic explosions echoed through Ramallah, part of the ongoing Israeli operation that involved blowing doors off a cell phone company and other office buildings in order to conduct searches.
In another development, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed to Powell that peace talks be held among Israel and Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon -- but without Arafat, said Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman.
"We're talking about a conference with the Arabs where they present their proposals and we present ours," Gissin said.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat expressed conditional acceptance of the idea. In a phone call to Fox News, he said, "I am ready for immediate conference, but at the same time immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces."
A senior U.S. official said the idea was discussed as part of a way to move forward politically, but more talks were needed.
Without Arafat's participation, there appeared little chance such a meeting would take place.
Sunday's court decision comes amid Palestinian accusations that Israel has been secretly burying Palestinians in mass graves. The petition to the Supreme Court was filed by Arab Israelis who said Israel was attempting to hide the number of dead.
It has been impossible to confirm the death toll. Palestinians officials and medical groups have not been allowed into the camp, but claim the death toll is in the hundreds.
The army, which suffered 23 deaths among its soldiers in the camp, had been saying that about a 100 Palestinians were killed, most of them gunmen, and that it wanted to bury the militants in unmarked graves in a cemetery in northern Israel.
Col. Dan Riesner, an adviser to the army's advocate-general who was present at Sunday's court hearing, said the bodies of 37 Palestinians, including at least 23 young men believed to be gunmen, had been found in a search of half of the camp.
Of the 37 bodies, Riesner said at least 26 were left where they were found pending the court action and also because of fears they may be booby trapped. Israeli officials said 11 civilian bodies were turned over to relatives or hospitals, and were buried.
Israel has declared the Jenin refugee camp a closed military zone, though some journalists, including several from The Associated Press, have managed to get inside over the past four days.
The army on Sunday gave a group of journalists a tour of part of the camp, which was home to some 15,000 Palestinians.
The powerful stench of sewage mixed with garbage strewn on the camp's narrow alleyways. Many houses were empty, some with their front doors open.
Bullet casings littered the streets and alleyways, sitting in the midst of shattered glass and shards of rubble. Walls bore Hebrew letters and numbers, the work of the Israeli army to mark the roads. Alongside them were slogans of the militant Islamic group Hamas.
Some homes had their windows shut, but the sound of children playing and the aroma of baking bread wafted through, indicating that some people were still around.
Most residents who have remained inside the camp were too afraid to venture out.
But Mariam Fayed and the remaining five members of her family came out Sunday to survey the devastation. She said men in her family had left the camp before the Israeli army moved in.
For 10 days, the family survived on meager portions of bread and rice, said Fayed, displaying a pot of chopped greens from her garden and mixed with fried onions.
"We heard they lifted the curfew, but the last time they said that one of our neighbors went out to buy food and the soldiers shot at him," she said.
At one spot, a strong stench filled the air near the corpse of a man in a blue jacket and with a burnt face. The front of his house was missing, and a chicken wandered around the corpse.
Nearby, an elderly woman peered anxiously from behind a white curtain. "My goats are gone," she shouted. "I'm starving. Give me bread."
Elsewhere in the camp, entire floors of apartment blocs had tumbled, with the few walls left standing pockmarked with shell and bullet holes.
A group of Israeli soldiers patrolling the camp on foot and with two sniffer dogs later stopped a group of journalists touring the camp on their own and asked them to leave. On the tour organized by the army, journalists were told that Palestinian militants booby trapped everything in the camp from rifles to garbage bags to refrigerators. The Israeli troops fighting them "window to window" and "house to house" could only advance about 100 yards a day.
So fierce was the fighting that the camp's central square has been reduced to a vast mass of rubble, dust and dirt. Most of the rest of the camp, was not much different, resembling a town in the wake of a devastating earthquake.
Col. Yoram Lavie, commander of the army's main battalion in the camp, said Palestinian resistance had ceased entirely on Saturday, but he suspected some Palestinian gunmen were still hiding.
Lt. Yoni Wolff, commander of a platoon that took part in the main battle around the camp's square, said the great majority of the Palestinian gunmen had surrendered, but acknowledged that when the rest refused to do so, the army's bulldozers moved in.
"We never bulldozed houses if we knew civilians were inside, only when firing persisted despite our repeated calls for surrender," he said.
He also acknowledged that bodies could still be under the rubble, but said he doubted there were very many.
Journalists saw one body there -- a bearded and burly Palestinian in his 30s wearing fatigues caked with dust. The left side of his face was charred and one eye missing. A horizontal streak of blood ran across the left side of his forehead as flies swarmed over his face.