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(photo credit: )
Scores of Hamas ministers and legislators arrested by the IDF early Thursday have gone on a hunger strike to protest the clampdown on Hamas, sources close to the group announced on Thursday.
According to the sources, the Hamas officials, who are being held at the Ofer detention center south of Ramallah, decided to go on an open-ended hunger strike to pressure Israel to release them.
The arrests, which caught Hamas by surprise, have effectively crippled the work of the Hamas government and parliament. They have also escalated tensions between Hamas and Fatah, especially after some Hamas leaders claimed that Fatah was trying to take advantage of the Israeli clampdown.
Many Palestinians here said the arrests were likely to bolster Hamas's popularity on the street. They noted that already on Thursday many people, including Fatah supporters, took to the streets to protest the arrests. More protests are expected on Friday in different places in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Although many Fatah leaders publicly expressed outrage at the arrests, some called for seizing the opportunity to return to power, while others did not conceal their satisfaction in private conversations.
"The Hamas leaders can only blame themselves for the latest deterioration," said a top Fatah official. "Their extremism and stubbornness have caused tremendous damage to the Palestinians, especially on the international arena."
Fatah legislator Azzam al-Ahmed raised many eyebrows when he called for forming a new government that would run the affairs of the Palestinians.
"The Palestinian Authority has been paralyzed and there is a need to fill the political vacuum," he said. "It's time for President Mahmoud Abbas to practice his constitutional rights."
Ahmed's statements drew sharp criticism from Hamas, whose representatives retorted by calling on Abbas to resign and dismantle the PA in protest against the arrest of the ministers and legislators. Some of Abbas's aides sought to distance themselves from the statements, arguing that Ahmed was only expressing his personal opinion.
Salah Bardaweel, a Hamas legislator from the Gaza Strip, expressed astonishment at the statements. "From a moral point of view, there should be no talk about holding a funeral for the present government," he said. He also accused Fatah of seeking to exploit the arrests to try to topple the elected government.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas leader based in Syria, expressed regret over the statements of Ahmed and other Fatah officials. He urged the Fatah members of the Palestinian Legislative Council to identify with their detained Hamas colleagues. "The occupation is targeting all of us, including President Abbas who has been banned from leaving the Gaza Strip," he said.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel was using the issue of kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit to bring down the Hamas government. "They are trying to bring down the Hamas government by all means," he said. "The international community, which has remained silent over the arrests of the Hamas leaders, is involved in the conspiracy."
A Hamas official in the West Bank on Thursday called for the resignation of Abbas and the dismantlement of the PA in response to the arrests of eight ministers and 20 legislators. "Abbas has no choice but to resign," he told The Jerusalem Post. "The people will not allow him and his Fatah party to replace the elected government. If they think that they can return to power with the help of Israeli tanks, they are mistaken." Muhammad Awad, secretary-general of the Hamas cabinet, said his government had no plans to resign following the arrests. "The Hamas ministers and legislators are hostages, not prisoners," he said after an emergency meeting of the Hamas government at a secret location in Gaza City. "Their arrest is a crime and we call on the international community to assume its moral responsibility and exert pressure on Israel to release all the Hamas officials."
Awad stressed that despite the arrests, the cabinet will continue to carry out its duties. "The government has taken a number of emergency measures to continue running the affairs of the Palestinians," he said. "The arrests won't prevent us from assuming our responsibilities."