Israel arrests third of Hamas cabinet in mass sweep

Nasser Abu Bakr and Hossam Ezzedine

RAMALLAH, West Bank, June 29, 2006 (AFP) – Israel arrested a third of the Hamas-led Palestinian cabinet along with scores of Islamists in a massive operation slammed by the governing party Thursday as a declaration of war.

 The vast Israeli operation, three months after the internationally boycotted cabinet took office, was concentrated in the West Bank political capital Ramallah, the flashpoint cities of Hebron and Jenin and annexed east Jerusalem.

Palestinian sources said that of the 13 ministers based in the West Bank, eight had been arrested, meaning that one-third of the current cabinet was in Israeli detention.

Twenty-four lawmakers were also among the total 64 Hamas members rounded up.

"This step was taken because Hamas has proven its involvement in terrorism, notably Sunday’s attack in which two of our soldiers were killed and another kidnapped," said an Israeli official who refused to give a name.

"We have no other choice when it comes to defending Israelis," the source said, denying that Israel had any intention of using the Hamas officials as bargaining chips to secure the release of the soldier captured on Sunday.

Nineteen-year-old Corporal Gilad Shalit was snatched by Palestinian militants, including members of the armed wing of Hamas who infiltrated Israel and attacked an army post.

"The arrested Islamists will be brought to justice, and we hope they will be detained a long time," the Israeli official said.

Justifying the arrests, Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer accused the government led by Hamas — on multiple terror blacklists in the West — of being an outfit of "killers".

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already threatened "extreme measures" to rescue the soldier and ruled out negotiations with his kidnappers.

"It is not a government, it is an organisation of killers with a leader in Damascus," Ben-Eliezer told public radio, in reference to Hamas political supremo Khaled Meshaal, who lives in Syria.

Accusing Hamas of waging a new battle by embarking on kidnappings, "we are going to show them we are professionals," the minister warned.

"We make no distinction between terrorists. No one involved in terrorism has any immunity," he said when asked about any possible Israeli assassination of Gaza-based Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who has been locked in a power struggle with Hamas for the past few months, condemned the arrests and urged the international community to intervene immediately to reinstate democracy.

Hamas deputy parliament speaker Ahmed Bahar accused Israel of launching an "open war" to destroy his government.

Five cabinet ministers were rounded up from a hotel in Ramallah, where they lived because of Israeli restrictions on their travel in the West Bank. They were blindfolded and handcuffed before being escorted away, Palestinians said.

Palestinians named them as finance minister Omar Abdelrazek, planning minister Samir Abu Eisheh, local government minister Issa al-Jaabari, prisoner affairs minister Wasfi Kabha and social affairs minister Fakhri al-Turkman.

Hamas’s deputy prime minister, Nasseredine al-Shaer, is normally based in the hotel. He was not arrested but on Thursday failed to turn up for work, Palestinian sources said.

Jerusalem affairs minister Khaled Abu Arafeh was detained in the holy city and employment minister Mohammed Barghuthi at a checkpoint near Ramallah in the West Bank, Palestinian sources said.

Palestinian religious affairs minister Nayef Rajub was arrested at his home in the flashpoint southern West Bank city of Hebron.

A ninth minister, independent Public works minister Abdelrahman Zidane, whom parliament said had been arrested, was not in fact at home when Israeli forces turned up, family sources said.

The detentions came two days after Ben-Eliezer warned Israel had "no problem entering the Gaza Strip and kidnapping half the Palestinian government".