TEL AVIV, Israel, April 12 (UPI) -- Palestinian officials charged Friday that Israeli forces killed hundreds of Palestinians and buried the bodies in mass graves in northern Israel.
Israeli officials questioned the death toll and said they were returning bodies to families after they were identified "in cooperation with the relevant sources."
Dr. Wael Qadan, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society's chief of emergency, told United Press International that he believed more than 200 people were killed in Jenin, but exact figures were not known. Red Cross spokeswoman Aleksandra Matijevic, told UPI the agency has no estimates or figures of its own.
Col. Gal Hirsh, head of operations at the Israeli army's command center, which includes the West Bank, rejected "rumors" that 500 to 600 Palestinians were killed.
"These are lies," he told reporters he told reporters in Jerusalem. Col. Hirsh noted that 23 Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting in Jenin and added, "We were fighting against armed terrorists. We asked the Palestinian civilians to evacuate their homes so they would not get hurt. Some chose not to. Most of the Palestinians that were killed were armed terrorists; many had explosive devices strapped to their bodies."
The death toll mounted quickly in the two weeks since Israel, in retaliation for a series of suicide bombings, including one in which more than two dozen people were killed at a Seder, started a massive military campaign in Palestinian territories.
That offensive included a siege on the headquarters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is still barred from leaving his Ramallah compound, and actions in several West Bank towns and refugee camps, including Jenin. Israel said its forces were trying to destroy the Palestinian militants' infrastructure and the creation of a buffer zone, which involved the razing of dozens of buildings.
Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey told Israeli Army Radio Friday "there were apparently hundreds of people killed in the Jenin refugee camp." The IDF quickly issued a "clarification," saying that Kitrey meant to say "casualties -- those killed or wounded" rather than just the number of those killed.
But the Palestinians had already reacted to Kitrey's initial comments.
Secretary-General of Palestinian Authority Cabinet Ahmed Abdel Rahman said, "They (Israeli solders) took hundreds of bodies to northern Israeli to hide their massacre they committed against our people.
"This massacre is not less than the massacres committed against the Palestinian people in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon."
He said thousands of Palestinians were either killed and buried in massive graveyards or smashed under houses destroyed in Jenin and Nablus.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, said he did not believe thousands of people were killed. "It doesn't sound logical," he told UPI. "The Palestinians chose to take up arms and fight the Israel Defense Forces' soldiers, and in places where there are battles, people get killed."
Hirsh dismissed claims that Israelis was burying Palestinians in mass graves as, "Palestinian propaganda."
"We call upon the Red Cross organization and the Red Crescent organization to assist in identification of the Palestinian bodies and to conduct a proper burial service," he added.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat called for an inquiry to investigate the killing of hundreds of Palestinians in Jenin and Nablus. However, Israel refused to join the call, saying that Palestinians were killed in fighting, not massacred by Israeli soldiers.
(Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza contributed to this story)