JERUSALEM–Israel defied international calls for a fast withdrawal of troops from the West Bank on Tuesday as 13 Israeli soldiers died in an explosion in the Jenin refugee camp and another died in Nablus, the most casualties in a single day since Israel began its offensive eleven days ago.
Israeli leaders were increasingly intransigent about leaving the West Bank, nominally a Palestinian-controlled area, insisting they will finish their quest to root out terrorists despite growing opposition to the military offensive in the world community.
“This is a battle for the survival of the Jewish people, for the survival of the state of Israel,” said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a television broadcast
The Jenin refugee camp has been the site of the harshest fighting during the Israeli incursions that began on March 29.
In a reflection of a hardening and resentful mood in the nation, Cabinet Secretary Gideon Sa’ar chided European leaders for criticizing Israel rather than taking a more “balanced” approach like the United States.
European leaders have been more harshly critical of Israel than the United States, although the Bush administration has repeatedlycalled for a quick withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank.
“Europe, which I believe in general has a historic and moral responsibility when it comes to the security of the Jewish people and Jewish state . . . do they expect us to take on unilateral risk?” he asked at an afternoon press conference, alluding to Western complicity in Adolf Hitler’s quest six decades ago to annihilate Jews.
Tuesday marked Israel’s annual commemoration of the 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims.
The Israeli Defense Forces said that they had taken control of Jenin, although not before Tuesday’s casualties.
Brig. Gen. Ron Kitri said the reservists killed Tuesday were conducting a sweep of the area shortly after dawn when they were trapped in a courtyard by a large explosion.
As the surrounding buildings collapsed, Palestinian sharpshooters opened fire on the wounded soldiers, finishing them off, Kitri said.
Palestinians quickly dragged the bodies of three soldiers to a nearby building, which fell down on top of them.
Palestinian officials, however, said the Israeli soldiers died accidentally after setting off the explosives themselves. There was no independent confirmation of either account.
Israeli forces have not suffered so many casualties in a single day since 1997.
Altogether, 25 Israeli soldiers and at least 100 Palestinians have been killed since Israeli forces entered Jenin a week ago, according to the Israeli military.
Dr. Mahmoud Abu Esleih of Al Razzi hospital in the town of Jenin said the number of Palestinian causalities was higher. His estimate was based on eyewitness accounts.
He complained that the Israeli army was refusing to allow Palestinian ambulances to retrieve the wounded and the dead.