By YAAKOV KATZ, HERB KEINON, JPOST.COM
In the continued crackdown on Hamas in the wake of Kassam rocket attacks from Gaza, the IDF conducted a massive arrest sweep of senior Hamas leaders in the West Bank overnight Wednesday, arresting the Palestinian Authority education minister, three parliament members and several mayors.
In total, the IDF said it had arrested 33 Palestinians, the most senior of which was Hamas Education Minister Nasser al-Shaer. Other detainees included three parliament members, the head of the Wakf in Nablus, a top official in the PA Interior Ministry, the mayors of Nablus, Kalkilya, Bidya and El-Bireh, and 21 Hamas operatives and other officials.
The army also shut down 10 Hamas offices in towns throughout the West Bank, includin Jenin, Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem.
The IDF denied Palestinian reports that it had arrested the PA foreign minister.
Analysis: Accuracy key to IAF's Gaza strikes
According to IDF sources, the operation was part of the general crackdown on Hamas and in line with the current operations in Gaza.
"This is a terror group," an officer said, "and we will hunt them wherever they are."
At Sunday's security cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert authorized the army to take action against Hamas leaders not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank, in an effort to stop the Kassam rocket fire against Israel.
Also late Wednesday night, the IAF bombed a money-changing office in Gaza, as well as other businesses in the Gaza Strip responsible for transferring money to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
According to the IDF, the money-changers have transferred millions of dollars from Syria and Iran to the two groups in recent years. The money was used to finance anti-Israel terror activity, including the manufacture of Kassam rockets - 200 of which were fired over the past week-and-a-half.
Palestinians reported that two people had been lightly wounded in the strike.
Another airstrike in the city shortly after midnight hit a car that the army said contained Hamas operatives. The passengers managed to escape the attack, but Palestinian sources reported another two bystanders lightly wounded.
Meanwhile, senior government officials said Wednesday night that Israel will target the Hamas terrorist infrastructure in Gaza as it has been targeting the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank for years, thus rejecting the notion that a unilateral Hamas cease-fire could prevent stepped-up IDF activity in the Gaza Strip.
In a new tactic and a rare foray into the Gaza Strip overnight Tuesday, IDF troops approached the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis and briefly detained seven Palestinians. The army said that the troops did not enter Khan Yunis itself and that the Palestinians were questioned and then released.
One reason for the substantial reduction in attacks from the West Bank over the years has been the "freedom of action" the IDF has there to conduct raids and arrests on a daily basis. Tuesday night's operation appears to be an attempt to implement that strategy in Gaza as well.
Government officials completely rejected an idea raised by Hamas of a renewed cease-fire that would include the West Bank, and not only Gaza. The previous cease-fire, which began in November but was continually violated by Kassam rocket attacks, applied only to Gaza, with Israel refusing to halt military action in the West Bank.
A senior government official said there was "no way" that Israel would extend the cease-fire to the West Bank as a "prize" for Hamas escalating the violence from Gaza. "They won't get a prize for stopping the fire that they escalated," the official said.
The official added that Israel had no intention of stopping its military operations inside Gaza, even if the attacks on Sderot tapered off, and that the level of IDF activity would depend on the intelligence information in its hands and the circumstances on the ground.
The IDF, meanwhile, continued its air strikes against Hamas terror targets over the Shavuot holiday, wounding seven Palestinians in bombing ammunition depots in Gaza City and the Jabalya refugee camp. The IDF said that secondary explosions were spotted following the air strikes, proving that weapons and ammunition were stored there.
On Wednesday night, two Givati Brigade infantrymen were lightly wounded in clashes with Palestinian gunmen in the northern Gaza Strip.
Eleven Kassams were fired at the western Negev on Wednesday, without causing any injuries. On Tuesday, nine rockets struck the Negev, including two that hit southern Ashkelon.
Palestinians said IDF troops searched several homes during the Khan Yunis raid and left handwritten notes warning that houses could be demolished if rockets were fired from them.
Also Tuesday, IAF strikes on Hamas training camps in Gaza wounded at least six people, Palestinian security officials said. Hamas officials said that one of the air strikes destroyed a building used by its private militia, known as the Executive Force.
The army confirmed the strikes and said the building served as a command and control center for Hamas terrorist activity.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz met with European Union Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana on Tuesday and said Israel was "clenching its teeth" so as not to have to launch a widespread ground operation inside Gaza. Peretz urged Solana to renew the EU boycott of the Palestinian Authority and to suspend all money transfers.
"For the time being we are clenching our teeth and trying not to arrive at a situation where we are forced into a ground operation," Peretz told Solana. "Now is the time when European diplomacy is put to the test."
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