Israel rounded up more than 30 Hamas leaders in the West Bank including a Cabinet minister, taking its conflict with Hamas over daily Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza to a new level.
The arrest of 33 Hamas leaders yesterday reflected an Israeli decision to target the Islamist group’s political leadership – but not necessarily in lethal airstrikes.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the arrests were a blow to peace efforts, and a spokesman for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh demanded immediate release of the detainees and called on the UN and European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.
Israel carried out an intensive series of airstrikes in Gaza yesterday, directed at Hamas training bases and command posts.
A huge plume of black smoke rose over Gaza City after a mid-afternoon strike, but there were no serious injuries, Palestinian medics said.
In nighttime strikes, Israeli aircraft hit several more targets in southern Gaza, three from Hamas and one from Islamic Jihad, the military said.
Nine people were hurt, including three children and two women, hospital officials said.
Just before midnight, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a guard shack in the Shati refugee camp where Haniyeh lives, Palestinian security said. No one was hurt. The Israeli military said the target was a structure used by Hamas.
Haniyeh went to inspect the site, but guards pulled him away because Israeli aircraft were still in the sky, security officials said. The military said Haniyeh was not the target.
Other targets were a money changer’s shop in Gaza City and a Hamas post in northern Gaza, Palestinian security said.
At sundown yesterday, two mortar shells fired from Gaza exploded at Erez, the main transit point for people, and Israel closed the crossing.
There was considerable damage to two of the processing lanes, but no one was hurt, the military said.
More than 40 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli raids over the past 10 days, and an Israeli woman was killed by a rocket on Monday.
The rocket barrages have severely disrupted life in the area near Gaza. Thousands of frightened residents have fled.
Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said the arrests were part of Israel’s attempt to neutralise Hamas.
“Arrests are better than shooting, ” he told Israeli Army Radio. “The arrest of these Hamas leaders sends a message to the military organisations that we demand that this firing (of rockets) stop.”
But Hamas remained defiant. “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, the Islamist group said in a statement.
In Nablus last night, Palestinians opened fire on Israeli soldiers carrying out arrests. Soldiers returned the fire, the military said, and Army Radio said one militant was killed.
Visiting EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana met Abbas in Gaza yesterday and called for both sides to halt the violence.
“The rockets and the Israeli response have to stop,” he told reporters 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, adding that the Israeli airstrikes were failing to stop the salvos.
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 lightly 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.
The most prominent leader arrested overnight was Education Minister Nasser Shaer, considered a pragmatist. 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, before a judge ordered his release.
Israel has been holding 40 Palestinian politicians from Hamas, including the parliament speaker, Abdel Aziz Duaik, rounded up over the past year.
Previous arrests of notables were linked to the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-linked gunmen in a cross-border raid that killed two other soldiers in June 2006. The idea was to trade the lawmakers for the soldier, but no deal took place.
Also among those rounded up yesterday 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.
So far, Israel’s other tactics against the rocket fire have failed. In the past, even large-scale ground invasions to take over areas where militants launch rockets, while causing multiple casualties and widespread damage, have not stopped the barrages.
Also, Abbas’ security forces have been ineffective in halting the rocket salvos and have made few visible efforts in that direction, despite Abbas’ frequent denunciations.
Instead, the rocket attacks have diminished when Palestinian militants decide to lower the flame. Intentionally or not, the sudden flareup with Israel has stopped a month of bloody internal clashes between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah forces.