- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

12:11 p.m.

NABLUS, West Bank — Israeli troops in the West Bank arrested more than 30 senior Hamas members early today, 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 Mr. Shaer’s computer, she said. Israel also detained Mr. Shaer for a month last year during a similar crackdown before a judge ordered his release.

Others rounded up today include 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.

Israeli 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.”

Nevertheless, 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 Authority 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 United Nations and European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.

Mr. Abbas, a moderate from the Fatah party, has been meeting with Mr. 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.

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