NABLUS, West Bank – Israeli troops in the West Bank arrested more than 30 senior Hamas members early Thursday, including a Cabinet minister, legislators and mayors — pressing forward with an offensive against the Islamic militant group.
The roundup came hours after Israeli planes struck what the military said were money changing offices and other businesses in Gaza used to channel funds to Hamas.
Israel has been attacking Hamas targets for more than a week in retaliation for repeated rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli border towns.
The Israeli army said it arrested 33 Hamas leaders in its overnight sweep. The most prominent official taken in the roundup was Education Minister Nasser Shaer, considered a pragmatist in the movement.
His wife, Huda, said soldiers knocked on the door of their home in the West Bank city of Nablus and took him away. Troops also seized Shaer’s computer, she said. Israel also detained Shaer for a month last year during a similar crackdown before a judge ordered his release.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that in the fight to neutralize Hamas, arrests were preferable to bloodshed.
“Arrests are better than shooting, ” he told Israeli Army Radio. “The arrest of these Hamas leaders sends a message to the military organizations that we demand that this firing (of rockets) stop.”
But Hamas said the attacks would continue. “We will chase the occupation soldiers and the settlers in every inch of our occupied land. and we announce that we give free hand to our cells to strike against the enemy in every place in Palestine,” a Hamas term that includes Israel, according to a statement.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the arrests were a blow to peace efforts, and a spokesman for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, called for the immediate release of the detainees and called on the U.N. and
European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.
“These aggressive practices show the extent of the Israeli escalation and arrogance in the Palestinian territories, and also show how dismissive the Israeli government is of all customs and international laws,” spokesman Ghazi Hamad said.
Abbas, a moderate from the
Fatah party, has been meeting with Haniyeh in Gaza this week in an effort to reduce tensions with Israel.
The raid was the second major crackdown on Hamas in the past year. Israel rounded up dozens of Hamas officials, including three Cabinet ministers, last June after Palestinian militants tunneled into Israel from Gaza and captured an Israeli soldier.
Some 40 Hamas lawmakers arrested last summer — nearly one-third of the Palestinian legislature — are still behind bars. Despite the crackdown, the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, remains in captivity.
Last year’s swoop paralyzed the Palestinian parliament, but detained Cabinet ministers were quickly replaced.
Among those rounded up Thursday were former Cabinet minister Abdel Rahman Zeidan, legislators Hamed Bitawi and Daoud Abu Ser, the mayors of the towns of Nablus, Qalqiliya and Beita, and the head of the main Islamic charity in Nablus, Fayad al-Arba.
Until Thursday, Israel’s crackdown on Hamas had been largely focused on the group’s
Gaza Strip stronghold. Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 40 Palestinians in Gaza over the past week, most of them militants.
In new violence, a Palestinian was killed Thursday by Israeli tank fire near the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, local hospital staff said and the health ministry said a woman injured in an air strike last week died of her wounds in the hospital.
The Israeli military said a tank fired shells into an area close to the border with Israel that is regularly used by militants to fire rockets.
Visiting EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana met Abbas in Gaza and called for Palestinians and Israelis to stop the violence..
“The rockets and the Israeli response have to stop,” he said after the meeting.
Abbas himself condemned what he called the “absurd” rocket fire and said he was trying to persuade militant groups to stop. “They must stop so we can reach a truce with Israel,” he said.
Just after the meeting, Israeli forces carried out two more airstrikes, hitting an empty Hamas base in Gaza City and a base in central Gaza, Palestinian security officials said. Four civilians were slightly injured by flying glass and debris in Gaza City, medics said. No one was hurt in the second strike. The Israeli military said it hit Hamas emplacements.
Israeli aircraft on Wednesday demolished two money exchange shops in Gaza City used to channel funds to Hamas militants, the military said. The army said the shops served as a conduit for millions of dollars sent from
Syria and Lebanon.
Three people were slightly wounded in one of the attacks, medical officials said, and four stores were damaged in another, Palestinian security officials said. Electricity was cut off in parts of the town.
The airstrikes came as Abbas and Haniyeh were making a new push to restore a truce with Israel.
It also was the first time the men have met since fighting between their Hamas and Fatah movements broke out two weeks ago, killing more than 50 people. The two sides reached a truce last weekend, but tensions remain high.
The Abbas-Haniyeh meeting ended with the two sides agreeing their factions would meet again.
“We are working to recommit to the truce,” Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.
A Haniyeh aide, Ahmed Yousef, said a renewed cease-fire with Israel would have to be comprehensive and include the West Bank in addition to Gaza. The previous truce, brokered in November, applied only to the Gaza-Israel border, and Israel rejected repeated Palestinian demands that it also halt arrest raids in the West Bank.
“If it is going to be for Gaza only, then no one will be able to convince the Palestinian resistance factions to commit to that,” Yousef said.
Israel, however, sees no point in extending to the West Bank a truce it says has failed to prove itself in Gaza.
“Israel has always said that if a cease-fire is kept in Gaza we’re willing to extend it to the West Bank,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “The trouble is that a cease fire in Gaza has never been kept … It has been a sham. The idea of extending a failure is flawed one.”