Israel will consider releasing the 64 Hamas activists it rounded up early Thursday morning if IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit is freed, OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh said Thursday.
"The possibility exists," Naveh said. "The diplomatic echelon can decide to release the Hamas officials if the soldier is returned to us." Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the primary goal of the operation "is to bring about Shalit's release. If he is released, this would dramatically deescalate the situation."
Regev said that Thursday's arrests in the West Bank showed that "Israel rejects the unofficial distinction that has been made within Hamas of a military and political wing."
All told, eight of Hamas's 23 cabinet ministers and 20 of its 72 lawmakers were arrested. The detainees included such senior figures as Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek, Labor Minister Muhammad Barghouti, parliament member Muhammad Abu Tir and the mayors of Kalkilya and Jenin.
"From a legal point of view there is no problem arresting them, because they are members of a terrorist group," Regev said.
The arrests took place Thursday, Regev said, because "Hamas has escalated their terrorism against us. Hamas is responsible for Sunday's attack, and is responsible for the rocket fire on Sderot; we are being proactive against them."
Naveh stressed that while the arrests were connected to the events in Gaza and efforts to retrieve the kidnapped soldier, they were meant primarily to destroy Hamas terror infrastructure in the West Bank. "They were first and foremost arrested due to their involvement in terror," he explained.
He said that the prosecution had collected sufficient evidence to press charges against the politicians who would be tried in an Israeli court of law and whom he said each had skeletons in their closets.
"Hamas has already weeks ago begun engaging in terror activity and in rocket attacks against Israel," he said at a press conference at Central Command headquarters in Jerusalem. "This has led to a new situation in which the [Hamas] ministers transfer funds [to terror groups], assist terror groups and operate acts of terror."
The arrest operation was carried out simultaneously throughout the night across the West Bank in cities like Hebron, Ramallah and Jenin. No one was hurt during the raids, which were all finished before dawn. The detainees were all transferred into Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) custody and were interrogated throughout the day.
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the arrests were taken "within the context of a normal legal criminal procedure with the intention of questioning those who were arrested." The arrested men, according to the ministry, are suspected of criminal offenses such as membership in a terrorist organization.
"Those arrested will be entitled to legal defense," the ministry statement said, "and their detention and questioning will be subject to judicial review. In the event that there is no basis for putting someone among those arrested on trial, that person will be released."
Earlier in the day, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that Israel would continue cracking down on Hamas terror suspects without regard to their political status. "This move proves that no one in Hamas is above the law," he said.
Israeli diplomatic officials said that while statements coming from the US and Europe expressed concern about an escalation, they were not especially strong in their condemnation of Israel's move. Foreign Ministry sources said that neither Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nor Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were phoned by colleagues abroad demanding that Israel cease and desist.
The foreign ministers of the Group of Eight industrialized nations (G8) meeting in Moscow Thursday, called on Israel to "exercise utmost restraint in the current crisis."
The statement, endorsed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said: "The detention of elected members of the Palestinian government and legislature raises particular concerns." Diplomatic officials in Israel noted that the term "particular concerns" is not exactly a strong condemnation of Israel's actions.
Rice told a news conference that the crisis "underscores the need for all Palestinian parties to work for an end to terrorist activities. We also called on the Palestinian government and other parties to secure the release of the Israeli soldier, and we are asking Israel to exercise restrain in this circumstance."
One thing that worked in our favor, one diplomatic official said, was that Israel waited three days from the time Shalit was captured before taking significant military action, thereby giving the international community a chance to resolve the situation. When they failed, he said, they better understood the need for military steps.