- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

JERUSALEM — Israel arrested more than 130 Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron yesterday, targeting Hamas as the Palestinian government awaited word on whether the Islamist militant group would agree to a cease-fire.

The Israelis also charged five Israeli-Arab leaders with funneling at least $6.8 million to Hamas in a trial taking place amid increasing tension between the government and the Arab community.

Palestinian officials and Egyptian mediators said they expect a positive response soon from Hamas and other militant groups to a proposal to halt attacks on Israelis.

“There is a feeling of optimism that something like this will be announced in the next few days,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said in Cairo yesterday, referring to a truce.

An agreement by Palestinian militias to suspend their armed uprising could be a breakthrough for a U.S.-backed peace plan that envisions Palestinian statehood by 2005. The “road map” has been hung up over the two sides’ inability to end fighting, which has lasted 33 months, with each saying the other must take the first step.

The terms of the emerging deal between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the militias were not clear. One Palestinian mediator said Monday that the truce will be open-ended and apply not only to Israel, but also to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — a key condition for Israel.

However, a leader of one of the armed groups said Hamas will accept only a three-month truce. Leaders of the smaller Islamic Jihad group are trying to persuade activists to accept a limited deal but are facing stiff opposition, he said.

The arrests in Hebron yesterday came just days after troops shot and killed Abdullah Kawasme, Hamas’ leader in Hebron. Israel blames him for the deaths of 52 Israelis.

The detainees, including relatives of Hamas suicide bombers and Mr. Kawasme’s sister-in-law, were taken to an Israeli base on the outskirts of Hebron. They sat in a large, open-sided tent, handcuffed and blindfolded, and were taken in groups to a nearby building for interrogation.

Adnan Kawasme, 17, a relative of the slain leader, said troops came to his house and used rifle butts to push him along. The high-school student said he was released after eight hours.

In the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, meanwhile, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheik Raed Salah, and four others were charged with funneling at least $6.8 million to Hamas and having contacts with an Iranian agent in Lebanon.

The trial comes at a time when the United States, which has labeled Hamas a terrorist organization, is trying to dry up funding to the group.

The 12-count indictment said Salah and the other defendants transferred money from Hamas institutions abroad to group activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hundreds of Arabs, many of them carrying green Islamic banners, protested outside the Haifa courthouse. Several Israeli-Arab leaders have said the trial is meant to intimidate Israel’s 1.2 million-strong Arab community.

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