Israel says arrests dozens of Hamas militants in West Bank

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli forces have arrested dozens of Hamas members suspected of planning attacks and trying to build up the Palestinian militant group in the occupied West Bank, Israel’s Shin Bet security service said on Wednesday.

The Islamist group dismissed the accusations against its members, saying Israel was just trying to sabotage its relationship with other Arab powers.

Shin Bet’s announcement followed the roadside shooting of a Jewish settler on Monday, though his killing was not claimed by any faction and Israeli officials said it looked like an attack by a lone Palestinian.

Around 40 Hamas members, some of them senior, were detained around the city of Nablus in recent months on suspicion of “working to renew Hamas activity in Samaria (northern West Bank), including through preparing the groundwork for terrorist activity,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.

It said the detained militants had received instruction from Hussan Badran, a Hamas spokesman in Qatar, as well as funds that were “laundered” through a gold dealer active in Jordan.

Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip, has been regularly accused of trying to take over the West Bank, controlled by the U.S.-backed administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

While Abbas formally reconciled with Hamas last year to form a unity government, distrust remains.

Hamas said on Wednesday it was committed to holy war against Israel. “But at the same time we deny any connection between the brother Hussam Badran and resistance in the West Bank,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Shin Bet said the detainees would be indicted in an Israeli military court soon. There was no information on how the Hamas suspects might plead in court.

Briefing Israeli lawmakers on Tuesday, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen gave a mixed assessment of Hamas.

Since last year’s Gaza war, which devastated much of the impoverished Palestinian enclave, Hamas has been in “strategic distress” and “currently has no willingness to take action against Israel” even though it is arming itself for the next conflict, Cohen said, according to a parliamentary spokesman.

In the West Bank, Hamas has limited clout, Cohen added.

“Israeli preventive operations, a relatively stable economy, the public’s desire to preserve personal prosperity - all of these and other factors significantly and effectively counter-act destabilizing elements like the absence of a diplomatic horizon, international triggers or Hamas efforts,” he said.

Palestinians seek the Gaza Strip and the West Bank alongside east Jerusalem, as part of a future state. Faltering peace talks with Israel collapsed last year after the Abbas-Hamas unity deal.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Andrew Heavens