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Palestinians condemn Israel's arrest of Hamas leader

Moderates see threat to coalition

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian officials yesterday condemned Israel's arrest of the Palestinian deputy prime minister and accused the Jewish state of undermining their efforts to form a broad government coalition.

Israeli soldiers burst into the home of Nasser Shaer before dawn yesterday and took him away for questioning. Shaer, a former university professor, was the highest-ranking Hamas official detained in Israel's seven-week-old crackdown against the ruling Islamic militant group.

Israel launched its latest crackdown against Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Legislature and Cabinet, shortly after Hamas-allied militants from the Gaza Strip captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid June 25. Despite an ongoing Israeli military offensive in the coastal area, the soldier has not been freed.

The Israelis have arrested eight Hamas Cabinet ministers and more than two dozen lawmakers, including the speaker of parliament, since late June.

But Shaer, 45, eluded arrest until yesterday .

Shaer's wife, Huda, said he was seized at an apartment where his family, including six children, had been hiding for several weeks. She said the family had cut off contact with all their friends in Ramallah and rarely ventured outside. The army confirmed the arrest but gave no details.

``The whole family took precautions to prevent the Israelis from discovering the address and coming to arrest him," she said.

Shaer also did not appear in public or speak to the media. He made only occasional visits to his office, using alternate routes to get there and taking paperwork with him to other locations, said Cabinet minister Abdel Rahman Zeidan, a friend of Shaer.

It was unclear how Israeli troops tracked down Shaer. However, Israel's Shin Bet security service runs a network of informers in the West Bank and Gaza.

Shaer, who holds a doctorate in comparative religions from England's Manchester University, is considered to be among the more pragmatic members of the Hamas government. He also serves as education minister.

The international community has cut off funds to the Hamas government and said aid would only be restored if Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel.

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year, Shaer said Hamas was searching for a way to accept international realities without caving in to pressure. ``Hamas does not want to lose its supporters, but at the same time does not want to fight the whole world," he said at the time.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev defended the arrest, saying Shaer is a member of a group that the United States, Canada, and the European Union also have branded a terrorist organization. ``Hamas knows what it has to do if it wants to be considered moderate by the international community," Regev said.

Palestinian officials in Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas's rival Fatah movement condemned the arrest.

Saeb Erekat, a Fatah lawmaker, said the arrest would hurt efforts by the moderate Abbas to form a coalition with Hamas. Abbas hopes a unity government will pressure Hamas to moderate its views and open the way for renewed peace talks with Israel.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called on the international community, including the United Nations, to secure Shaer's release. ``We believe this kidnapping is trying to tighten the leash on our government," he said.

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