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Israel Arrests Hamas Founder in Raid

March 3, 2003

BUREIJ REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Israeli troops raiding a Gaza refugee camp arrested a Hamas founder Monday, targeting the political leadership of the Islamic militant group for the first time in 29 months of fighting.

Eight Palestinians, among them a pregnant woman, were killed in clashes in the camp.

In Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city, a Palestinian man was also shot by troops as he skirted an Israeli army checkpoint, Palestinian security officials said. Doctors said he was hit in the leg, severing an artery, and bled to death before reaching the hospital.

The army had no immediate comment.

Troops blew up four homes in Gaza’s Bureij camp, including that of Hamas co-founder Mohammed Taha, 65, who was wounded in clashes with soldiers, the army said. Several adjacent houses and a mosque were damaged by the blasts.

Taha’s five sons _ all senior Hamas activists _ were also arrested. One son, Ayman, who was also wounded Monday, is the assistant of the top Hamas bombmaker and No. 1 on Israel’s wanted list, Mohammed Deif, the army said.

The arrests signaled a turning point in Israel’s dealings with Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and bombings. Since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000, Israel has killed scores of Hamas militants and rounded up hundreds of activists, but left the political leadership in Gaza alone.

Mohammed Taha, a reclusive ideologue, founded Hamas in 1987, along with the group’s spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and three other senior clerics. Since then, Hamas has emerged as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s biggest rival.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Sunday the military would step up strikes against Hamas. ``We want to arrive at a situation where the terror organizations invest more and more (effort) defending themselves,″ he said.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza began after a four-man tank crew was killed in a Hamas bombing Feb. 16. Since then, 44 Palestinians, including Hamas gunmen and at least eight civilians, have been killed in 14 Israeli raids in towns and camps.

``This is a continuation of the escalated aggression against our people and our holy places,″ Arafat told The AP, referring to the latest raid. And his Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat called for U.S. intervention to stop Israel’s actions, saying that ``silence to these crimes is an encouragement for their reoccurrence.″

Monday’s incursion began at about 2 a.m. (midnight Sunday) when jeeps and tanks backed by helicopters rolled into Bureij in central Gaza. Fierce fighting erupted, and hospital doctors said eight Palestinians were killed. Doctors said five were gunmen and three were civilians _ two boys, ages 14 and 16, and a 33-year-old woman who was in her ninth month of pregnancy.

The woman was killed when her house collapsed on her during the demolition of a nearby building, doctors and her family said. Six other family members were injured, including the woman’s husband and two of her sons.

Palestinian witnesses said soldiers prevented ambulances from evacuating the wounded from Bureij for several hours. Assaf Liberati, an army spokesman, confirmed that ambulances were denied access. He said the first priority was to protect soldiers, and that there was concern that some of the ambulances were booby-trapped. ``In the end, the wounded were treated,″ Liberati said.

The army said it demolished four houses of militants, including the two-story Taha family home and the home of a suicide bomber. Hand grenades were thrown from the Taha house at soldiers who returned fire, wounding Mohammed and Ayman Taha before arresting them, the army said. In blowing up the house, troops damaged the outer wall of an adjacent mosque where Mohammed Taha was a preacher.

The military confirmed that soldiers entered the mosque, looking for weapons. An Associated Press reporter touring the mosque saw windows smashed and bullet holes in the facade, apparently from Israeli helicopter fire; the mosque is in an alley too narrow for ground fighting. Several copies of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, were lying damaged on the floor. The army said the damage was not deliberate.

The demolition of the four homes severely damaged another 11 houses, rendering them uninhabitable and leaving about 150 people homeless, said the mayor of Bureij, Kamal Baghdadi.

An Israeli army spokeswoman, Maj. Sharon Feingold, said Taha ``is one of the most senior Hamas activists and terrorists, and I am happy to say he is in our hands.″ The raid ``is a clear message to the terrorists that ... there’s a price to be paid.″

Hamas said Taha’s arrest was a serious blow, but that the group would continue attacking Israelis. ``Israel will pay a high price for its crimes,″ said a spokesman, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

Israeli commentators said targeting Hamas leaders will have little effect. ``I have not yet seen a Hamas leader who is irreplacable,″ said Shlomo Gazit of Tel Aviv’s Jaffee Center for Stategic Studies.

Inside Nablus, Israeli troops renewed operations in the Casbah _ or Old City _ early Monday, blocking the entrances to the area and taking over homes and buildings to use as lookouts, residents said. Soldiers conducted house-to-house searches for militants, but no fighting erupted.

In a West Bank village, the army said it demolished the home of a Hamas militant. The army said the homeowner, Fathi Hatzib, drove a suicide bomber to the Park Hotel in Netanya, where he blew himself up on the eve of Passover last year, killing 29 people, the deadliest attack in more than two years of fighting.

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