JERUSALEM, Feb 7 – Israeli police said on Friday they had found a suicide bomber’s explosives belt hidden in a mosque in Israel, and said it was the first such discovery since the Palestinian uprising began more than two years ago. Earlier, Hamas, a militant group that espouses suicide attacks and a strict Islamic rule, said it was ready to take over the Palestinian leadership from Yasser Arafat.
THE ARMY SAID the belt was discovered on Thursday as a result of “precise intelligence information” from two members of the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad who were captured by Israeli forces in the West Bank.
Packed with about 30 lbs. of explosives, the belt had been placed in the washroom of a mosque in the Israeli Arab town of Taybeh near the West Bank, police spokeswoman Shira Lieberman said.
Taybeh is along a route that suicide bombers have used in the past when infiltrating into Israel. Islamic Jihad has killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings during the 28-month-old Palestinian uprising for statehood.
Taybeh mayor Salah Jabara condemned the use of the mosque as a hiding place for explosives. “In the final analysis, bombs harm Arabs and Jews alike,” Jabara told Israeli Army Radio.
Police did not say who they suspect may have placed the belt in the mosque. Israeli Arabs, who make up some 18 percent of the population of the Jewish state, sympathize with the Palestinian revolt but have largely stayed on its sidelines.
Lieberman said experts moved the explosives out of the mosque before defusing them.
“The use of a mosque to hide explosives shows that Palestinian terrorists will stop at nothing to harm Israelis,” said David Baker, an official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office.
Amichai Shai, police chief of the Sharon district where Taybeh is located, told Army Radio that security forces have previously found explosives hidden in mosques in the West Bank, but not in Israel.
HAMAS SAYS READY TO SUCCEED ARAFAT
Hamas, a militant group that espouses suicide attacks and a strict Islamic rule, said Thursday it is ready to take over the Palestinian leadership from current head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. The statements by a senior Hamas official, Mahmoud Zahar, were a rare public expression of the rising political ambitions of the group as Israel itself works to weaken Arafat.
Zahar told The Associated Press that the group is “absolutely” prepared to lead the Palestinian people. He said Hamas has the infrastructure to take over leadership “politically, financially (and) socially.”
Zahar said Hamas would take over through elections, not by force. Palestinians had elections scheduled for Jan. 20 but postponed them because Israeli troops are in control of most of most West Bank cities.
Israel’s government is working to weaken Arafat, saying that he encourages militants to attack Israel. Sharon has ruled out contacts with Arafat, insisting that other Palestinian leaders are prepared to make peace. Sharon, with the backing of the United States, has demanded that Arafat be replaced or sidelined.
Critics have warned that the plan could backfire because radical groups like Hamas, not moderates, could take over if Arafat is neutralized.
ARAFAT REMAINS CONFINED
Arafat has not visited Gaza in more than a year, confined to his headquarters in Ramallah by the Israeli forces. He fears that if he leaves, he will not be allowed to return.
Hamas has moved into the vacuum in Gaza, offering social services in the crowded territory, poverty-stricken in the best of times and made even more destitute by the effects of the conflict. The group’s frequent attacks against Israel have bolstered its support.
In an apparent move to reassert control, the head of Preventive Security in Gaza, Arafat ally Rashid Abu Shbak, told Israel Radio on Thursday that he is sending police into areas where militants, many from Hamas, have fired mortars and rockets at Israeli settlements.
Shbak said the rocket fire is against the interest of the Palestinian people because it draws punishing Israeli retaliation.
Reflecting Hamas policy, Zahar said the armed conflict with Israel would continue, referring to suicide bombings and other attacks. Egypt has been trying to obtain a declaration from rival Palestinian factions to stop attacks on Israeli civilians, but Hamas has refused.
Hamas has been responsible for dozens of suicide bombing attacks against Israelis during 28 months of fighting. As a matter of Islamic principle, Hamas does not recognize the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, opposing Arafat’s policy of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.