Some 40 Israeli tanks and armored vehicles moved into the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin on Wednesday, exchanging fire with Palestinian militants, witnesses said. No injuries were immediately reported.
Military officials said the raid was intended to root out Palestinian militants in the camp and was expected to last a number of days.
Israel has frequently raided West Bank towns and refugee camps during the last four years of fighting.
The Jenin refugee camp is also the site of an April 2002 Israeli offensive that led to allegations of a civilian massacre. The United Nations ruled that there was no evidence to support the Palestinian claims, and said both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants had violated international law.
News of the raid came as the health of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was in question. Arafat reportedly fainted earlier in the day and was reported to be critically ill.
Also on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sought to face down rebels in his Likud party, vowing in comments published Wednesday that he would not give in to “pressures and threats” over his Gaza withdrawal plan.
Four Cabinet ministers — led by Sharon’s top rival, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — voted along with a majority of lawmakers who approved the Gaza plan on Tuesday. But the four said they would step down if the prime minister did not commit to a national referendum on it.
The turmoil raised new doubts about Sharon’s ability to go ahead with the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank next summer, as pledged.
The ministers’ resignations could force elections in coming months and delay implementation of a withdrawal. Alternately, Sharon could try to reshuffle his coalition and bring in the moderate Labor Party.
Sharon said he would not be swayed by the threats.
“I will never give in to pressures and threats, and I won’t accept any ultimatums,” he told the Haaretz daily newspaper in Wednesday’s editions. “My position on the referendum is unchanged. I am opposed to it because it will lead to terrible tensions and a rift in the public.”
Sharon suggested he would try to avoid early elections, telling the Yediot Ahronot daily: “I can promise you that I will have a coalition that will continue to run this country.”
In Tuesday’s historic vote, parliament for the first time approved the dismantling of Jewish settlements in lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast war and which are claimed by the Palestinians for a state.
Sharon won by a comfortable 67-45 margin, with seven abstentions. However, nearly half the Likud legislators and two religious parties voted against him, underscoring Sharon’s break with his former constituency.
Referendum proponents say a nationwide vote is needed to give the plan legitimacy, noting that Sharon rejected a similar proposal by his Labor Party opponent during the 2003 election campaign. Sharon announced the plan early this year.