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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

13 Israeli Soldiers Killed in Camp Explosion

JENIN, West Bank -- Palestinians barricaded in a West Bank refugee camp detonated powerful bombs near advancing Israeli troops Tuesday, killing 13 soldiers in the deadliest battle of Israel's West Bank offensive, just hours after Israel pulled out of two of six Palestinian towns under heavy U.S. pressure.

Some of the soldiers were buried under the rubble of a booby-trapped building in the Jenin refugee camp while others came under fire from Palestinians shooting from rooftops, Israeli military sources said. Nine soldiers were wounded in the incident, the deadliest involving Israeli forces in 18 months of fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has come under growing U.S. pressure to pull troops out of Palestinian cities, said the military offensive would continue.

However, Israel said it would not try to stop a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat despite earlier declarations that it would keep the Palestinian leader isolated. Powell is to arrive in Israel on Thursday evening.

Since March 29, at least 124 Palestinians and 24 Israeli soldiers have been killed, according to Palestinian medics and the Israeli army. The toll was expected to rise amid reports of dead Palestinians still not evacuated from areas of battle, especially in the Jenin camp.

Israel launched "Operation Defensive Shield" in response to a series of Palestinian suicide bombings. The most recent such attack came on March 31, two days into the campaign, when 15 Israelis were killed in a blast at a Haifa restaurant.

The heaviest fighting of the offensive raged in the Jenin camp, a militant stronghold. By Tuesday, several hundred gunmen had been pushed back to a small area of the camp, with Israeli helicopter gunships providing heavy cover fire for ground troops, witnesses said.

The evacuation of the wounded and recovery of three of the bodies took several hours, and Israel's military censor prevented reporting on the incident for much of the day.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Gideon Saar, meanwhile, said it was up to Powell whether to meet with Arafat.

Earlier Tuesday, Israel agreed to permit Arafat to meet with senior advisers ahead of Powell's arrival. Powell, meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Tuesday, said he hoped to see Arafat later this week.

In a speech to parliament on Monday, Sharon branded Arafat the head of a "regime of terror" Israel would have to dismantle, and suggested he would no longer do business with Arafat and other members of his Palestinian Authority.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S. President George W. Bush said Monday that Middle East peace will require leadership by both sides.

"I meant what I said about withdrawal without delay, and I mean what I say when I call upon the Arab world to strongly condemn against terrorist activities," Bush said. Just hours after Bush's stern call for a withdrawal, Israeli forces pulled out of the West Bank towns of Qalqiliya and Tulkarem early Tuesday, but troops remained in the towns of Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and Ramallah. Sharon has said the offensive would continue until Palestinian militias were crushed.

In the Jenin refugee camp, dozens of Palestinian gunmen remained holed up in a small area in the eastern part of the camp. Camp resident Jamal Abdel Salam said he was told by the armed men that they would keep fighting. "They said they prefer death to surrender," said Abdel Salam, an activist in the Islamic militant Hamas group.

In all, 22 Israeli soldiers have been killed in fighting in the camp.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said dozens of bodies of Palestinians were piled in the streets of the camp and residents were prevented from getting food and water. In a complaint to Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli organization said the military has committed serious human rights violations in the camp.

In Nablus, troops took control of the densely populated downtown area, or casbah, after several days of fierce resistance by Palestinian gunmen. At least 41 Palestinians were killed in fighting, medics said. The military said it has found 16 bomb-making labs in Nablus. Troops rounded up young Palestinian men at a Nablus school, releasing some after brief questioning and putting others on large trucks, apparently to be driven to detention centers.

Meanwhile, a standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity entered its second week, straining delicate relations between Israel and the Vatican. More than 200 armed Palestinians have been holed up in the shrine, ringed by Israeli troops.

More than 1,500 Palestinians have been arrested by Israel since the offensive began March 29, Israeli military officials said.