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Israel arrests Hamas officials

New tactic in bid to halt rocket attacks

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.

The Palestinian president condemned the arrests, saying they would hinder his efforts to restore a truce with Israel, and Washington expressed concern about the detentions. Hamas threatened to retaliate with attacks inside the Jewish state.

The arrests reflected an Israeli decision to target the Hamas political leadership -- but not necessarily with the lethal airstrikes it has staged over the past week on targets linked to the Hamas military arm.

Israeli aircraft staged attacks during the day and into the night, mainly on Hamas training bases and command posts. A huge plume of black smoke rose over Gaza City after an afternoon attack, but there were no serious injuries, Palestinian medics said.

During the night, a series of air raids injured nine Palestinians, including three children and two women, hospital officials said.

Just before midnight, an Israeli missile targeted a shack in the Shati refugee camp where Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas lives, but no one was hurt, Palestinian security said. Haniyeh went to inspect the site, but guards pulled him away because aircraft were still in the sky, officials said. Israel's military said the structure was being used by Hamas.

Israeli airstrikes also hit a money changer's shop in Gaza City and a Hamas post in northern Gaza, Palestinian security said.

Earlier, at sundown, two mortar shells fired from Gaza exploded at Erez, the main crossing for people between the Palestinian territory and Israel. No one was hurt, but there was considerable damage to two of the processing lanes, and Israel closed the crossing, the military said.

More than 40 Palestinians died in Israeli air raids over 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.

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."

But 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 Islamic group uses to include Israel.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey had mild criticism for Israel over the arrests.

"We have previously noted, when this kind of issue has come up before, that the detention of elected members of the Palestinian government and legislature does raise particular concerns for us," Casey told reporters.

The office of the Palestinian prime minister, Haniyeh, demanded the immediate release of the detainees and urged the United Nations and European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate in the Fatah movement, said that the arrests by Israel hurt peace efforts and that airstrikes weren't stopping the rocket salvos.

But he also condemned what he called the "absurd" rocket fire by Palestinian extremists and said he was trying to persuade militant groups to halt. "They must stop so we can reach a truce with Israel," Abbas said.

The most prominent Hamas leader arrested overnight was Education Minister Nasser Shaer, 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 also detained Shaer for a month last year, before a judge ordered his release.

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