NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli forces seized a Palestinian minister and other officials on Thursday in a crackdown on Hamas, which defied a call by President Mahmoud Abbas to stop firing rockets at Israel.
“Rockets will be fired as long as the Zionist aggression against our people continues,” said Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri after Abbas, meeting a European Union envoy, described such attacks as “pointless and needless”.
Abu Zuhri said Abbas, who also heads the Fatah movement which joined Hamas in a unity government two months ago, did not back “resistance” and had “contradicted the Palestinians’ consensus”.
Piling more pressure on Hamas while pressing ahead with air strikes in Gaza, Israel sent troops into Nablus in the occupied West Bank and took Palestinian Education Minister Naser al-Shaer, a member of the Islamist group, into custody.
They also detained at least three Hamas legislators, Nablus’s mayor and deputy mayor and other Hamas officials in neighboring towns and villages.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz appeared to suggest the detentions could put pressure on Hamas to stop rocket attacks from Gaza. The army said seven rockets and a mortar bomb were fired at Israel during the day.
“It’s better to arrest the leaders so that perhaps such a move can speed up a return to a ceasefire rather than allow the region to slide into total escalation,” Peretz told Israel’s Channel 2 television.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department expressed misgivings about the arrests but said Israel had a right to defend itself.
“The detention of elected members of the Palestinian government and legislature does raise particular concerns for us,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.
The Israeli army said 33 people were held across the West Bank. Last year, after Hamas won a parliamentary election, Israel seized more than 30 Hamas politicians, who are still in jail.
Hamas, the Israeli military said in a statement, was exploiting “governmental institutions to encourage and support terrorist activity”.
Israeli aircraft conducted several air strikes in the Gaza Strip, hitting Hamas positions in Gaza City and in the southern town of Khan Younis, where local residents said five people were wounded.
An air strike destroyed a metal workshop, which the Israeli military described as an Islamic Jihad weapons factory, in the southern town of Rafah.
Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, described the Hamas-Fatah unity government as “non-functioning” in an interview with Reuters and another news agency in Jerusalem.
Michael Williams, the United Nations’ new special envoy to the Middle East, voiced concern over Israel’s West Bank detentions.
“I’m troubled when I see Israeli soldiers arresting Palestinian legislators. I’m troubled that the education minister was arrested,” Williams told Reuters.
Williams said an international peacekeeping force for Gaza was a possibility that should be considered.
Hamas and other militant groups said they would consider stopping the rocket fire only if Israel first called off all its military operations in Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel has rebuffed similar demands in the past, arguing its West Bank operations prevent militant attacks.
Some 50 Palestinians have died in this month’s factional fighting. Air strikes have killed at least 35 Palestinians, and militant groups said 23 of them were fighters. More than 150 rockets, one of which killed an Israeli, have been fired from Gaza.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Ori Lewis, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Jeffrey Heller, Adam Entous and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem and Arshad Mohammed in Washington