Israel rounds up Hamas leaders

West Bank sweep is intended to halt rocket attacks from Gaza

May 25, 2007|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- Israel arrested a Palestinian Cabinet minister along with several legislators and mayors in a pre-dawn roundup of more than 30 Hamas leaders in the West Bank yesterday, stepping up pressure on the group to halt rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

The arrests were followed by a wave of airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, including a late-night attack near the home of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Israeli strikes have killed more than 30 Palestinians in little more than a week, and Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza have killed an Israeli woman in the border town of Sederot, which thousands of residents have fled.

The arrests yesterday extended the scope of Israel's operations to Hamas political leaders. The army said it had seized 33 Hamas leaders in an overnight sweep. The most prominent was Education Minister Nasser al-Din al-Shaer, one of the more pragmatic figures in Hamas, who was taken from his home in the city of Nablus. Al-Shaer was arrested last year and held for a month before a military judge ordered his release.

Also arrested were three legislators and several mayors, including the mayor and deputy mayor of Nablus.

A Palestinian government statement called the arrest of al-Shaer "a direct attack ... on democratically elected Palestinian institutions."

Hamas said it had "the right to use any means" to free the officials.

In Washington, the State Department expressed concern about the arrests but said Israel has a right to defend itself.

"The detention of elected members of the Palestinian government and legislature does raise particular concerns for us," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

The Israeli army said Hamas "exploits governmental institutions to encourage and support terrorist activity."

Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the arrests were a signal that Israel rejects any distinction between the field operatives and political leaders of Hamas and that "they must ... stop the rocket firing toward Israel."

"Arrests are better than shooting," Peretz said, adding that the move was an alternative to a ground assault in Gaza.

The Israeli sweep was the second major crackdown on Hamas political leaders in the past year.

In June, Israel rounded up dozens of Hamas officials in the West Bank, including Cabinet ministers and legislators, after militants from Gaza captured an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in a cross-border raid. Israel still holds more than 40 lawmakers - more than a third of the Palestinian legislature - and the soldier has not been freed.

Intensifying the air campaign against Hamas, Israeli aircraft struck at least nine targets in a series of strikes across the Gaza Strip yesterday and early today, the army and Palestinians said.

One Israeli missile exploded near Haniyeh's house in the Shati refugee camp, hitting a shack used by his guards, Palestinian officials said. The shack was empty, and no one was hurt. The military said it had targeted a structure used by Hamas. Haniyeh and his family were reported to be sleeping outside their home.

A strike on a base of a Hamas-led security force in Gaza City destroyed a building, and four people were slightly injured by flying debris, medics said. Hamas posts were hit in other locations, the army said, but no serious injuries were reported. The facilities were evacuated after Israel started its air attacks last week.

Another strike hit a money exchange shop in Gaza City after two similar shops were destroyed Wednesday. The army said the shops were used to channel money from Iran, Syria and Lebanon to Hamas militants.

Palestinians said a civilian was killed by Israeli fire near the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. The Israeli army said tanks had fired at areas used to launch rockets at Israel.

Abbas said at a news conference in Gaza that he had met with heads of Palestinian factions Wednesday "to stop the rockets, which I call useless, so that we can reach a mutual truce between us and the Israelis in Gaza and the West Bank."

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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