- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

NABLUS, West Bank — Israel rounded up a Palestinian Cabinet minister and 32 other Hamas leaders in the West Bank before dawn yesterday, trying a new tactic in its campaign to pressure the Islamic militant group into halting rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the arrests, saying they would hinder his efforts to restore a truce with Israel, and Hamas threatened to retaliate with attacks inside the Jewish state.

The arrests reflected an Israeli decision to target the Hamas political leadership. Israel also has staged several lethal air strikes on Hamas targets in the past week.

Israel again carried out many air strikes in Gaza yesterday, all directed at Hamas training bases and command posts. A huge plume of black smoke rose over Gaza City after an afternoon attack, but no serious injuries were reported, Palestinian medics said.

At sundown, two mortar shells fired from Gaza exploded at Erez, the main crossing point between the Palestinian territory and Israel. No one was hurt, but two processing lanes sustained considerable damage and Israel closed the crossing, the military said.

More than 40 Palestinians have died in Israeli air raids in the past 10 days, and a rocket killed an Israeli woman Monday. The rocket barrages have severely disrupted life in the southern Israel area near Gaza, and thousands of frightened residents have fled.

The most prominent Hamas leader arrested overnight was Education Minister Nasser Shaer, who is considered a pragmatist. His wife, Huda, said soldiers knocked on the door of their home in Nablus and took him away, along with his computer. Israel had detained Mr. Shaer for a month last year, before a judge ordered his release.

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.

Israel already was holding 40 Palestinian lawmakers from Hamas, including parliament Speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik. They were detained after Hamas-linked gunmen abducted an Israeli soldier in June. The intention had been to trade the lawmakers for the soldier, but no deal was reached.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the arrests in the West Bank were part of Israel’s attempt to neutralize Hamas and lessen the 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 [rocket] firing stop.”

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 term the Islamist group uses to include Israel.

The office of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a member of Hamas, demanded the immediate release of the detainees and urged the United Nations and European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana met with Mr. Abbas and called for both sides to halt the violence.

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