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Israel Arrests Prominent Hamas Leader

December 21, 2003

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli troops conducted a series of raids in the West Bank city of Nablus Sunday, arresting a Hamas leader and killing a 5-year-old Palestinian boy, Palestinian witnesses said.

Also Sunday, soldiers destroyed five houses in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

The violence came amid efforts to arrange a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Saturday that the summit could take place as soon as this week.

Officials have been trying for several weeks to arrange such a meeting. Both sides say they want to meet to rejuvenate efforts to implement the stalled ``road map″ peace plan, which envisions an immediate end to violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon repeated claims that Israel would impose its own boundary on the Palestinians if they don’t make serious peace moves in the next few months.

Palestinians oppose that idea, which would leave them with far less land than they want for a future state. They say only a negotiated agreement can bring peace.

Sharon also faces opposition within his own Likud Party, since his plan would involve dismantling some Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz said Sunday that he would demand a debate on Sharon’s proposals at a Likud meeting early next month.

Sharon’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, warned Sunday that evacuating parts of the West Bank and Gaza _ home to some 220,000 Israelis _ would lead to a serious confrontation with the settlers and their supporters. But he made clear the government is serious about evacuating settlements, saying ``probably tens of thousands″ of people would be affected.

``There will be a very serious protest and I don’t take it lightly,″ Olmert said in a meeting with the Foreign Press Association.

``I have no doubt there will be a very painful, difficult heartbreaking process and a confrontation of unknown proportion in the life of this country,″ he said. ``I expect it to be very emotional and very confrontational.″

Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Monday in what he has said is a bid to persuade the Israeli government to push forward with the road map.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said Sunday that Maher would be meeting Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and President Moshe Katsav. No meetings are planned with the Palestinian side, the official added.

Palestinian officials said they expect the Egyptian minister to return next week for talks with them. The Egyptian official declined to say whether meetings with the Palestinians are planned.

In Nablus, troops arrested Adnan Asfour of the militant group Hamas, said his brother, Said Asfour. Adnan Asfour is a prominent spokesman for the group in the West Bank.

Troops surrounded the brother’s apartment building early Sunday and called on all the residents to come out before arresting Adnan, Said Asfour said.

The army confirmed the arrest, describing Asfour as the head of Hamas in the West Bank.

Most of the current Hamas leadership sits in the Gaza Strip, and Israel has killed or arrested most of the group’s leaders in the West Bank during more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Later Sunday, an Israeli soldier shot and killed a 5-year-old Palestinian boy in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, witnesses and hospital officials said. The boy, Mohammed Al Araj, was killed by a bullet to the chest, officials said.

``He was coming out the house, holding a sandwich when he was shot,″ said Sami Sitan, a neighbor who brought him to the hospital.

The army said soldiers had opened fire in Balata after a crowd threw rocks, bottles and an explosive device at them. Army officials had no information on a boy being shot, but said they were still investigating.

In Gaza, troops entered the Rafah refugee camp along the Israel-Egyptian border and demolished five houses, witnesses and camp officials said.

The army said the houses had been used as cover to tunnel and place explosives under an army base last week.

Troops make frequent incursions into Rafah looking for weapons-smuggling tunnels and often demolish buildings used to cover them.

Meanwhile, leaders of Gaza’s tiny Christian community said Christmas celebrations will be kept to a minimum due to the ongoing violence in the overcrowded and impoverished strip.

``The current situation and the sadness that dominates the Palestinian territories have compelled Gaza Christians not to celebrate Christmas for the third year,″ said Gaza’s Latin Bishop Emanuel Musalam.

In Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, the violence has decimated the tourism-based economy, throwing thousands out of work, closing shops and leaving the town’s residents with little to celebrate.

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