RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli troops burst into a banquet hall after a brief gunbattle and arrested 17 activists from the militant Hamas group as they ate their evening meal at the close of the day's Ramadan fast.
The Thursday evening raid was launched as Egypt and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement pressed Hamas leaders to halt homicide attacks in Israel during Israel's election campaign, citing concerns that more violence would push Israelis to choose a hardline leader, a Palestinian official said Friday.
Three newspaper polls published Friday indicated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would retain his job.
Just after sundown in Ramallah on Thursday, a dozen Israeli jeeps and armored vehicles surrounded the six-floor Badran banquet halls building where about 600 Palestinians had gathered to break the Ramadan fast.
Gunmen on the street traded fire with troops briefly before Israeli forces entered the large building, which often hosts several wedding parties at once and was decorated with festive colored lights.
The dinner, organized by Kuwaiti Islamic charities, was to raise money for the families of Palestinians killed, injured or jailed during two years of fighting.
"It was a surprise for us all," said Ahmed Jalajel, 23, a cameraman who was hired to film the meal. Soldiers called through loudspeakers for people inside to come out one at a time. As they did, they followed commands to lift up their shirts to show they were unarmed.
Ramadan marks God's revelation of the holy book, the Quran, to the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago and is the holiest time of year for Muslims.
Arafat said the raid was another of the "crimes against our people, our holy places — Christian and Muslim."
In Israeli politics, three newspaper surveys showed Sharon is poised to win a Nov. 28 primary election, defeating his political rival, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The surveys were similar, giving Sharon at least 50 percent of the vote and a double-digit lead over Netanyahu.
A poll in the Maariv daily also indicated Likud would nearly double its strength in Jan. 28 general elections, winning 35 seats in the 120-member parliament, while the more moderate Labor Party is forecast to lose three seats, dropping to 22. The leader of the party first able to form a stable coalition becomes prime minister.
Early elections, called when Labor left Sharon's coalition government over a budget dispute last month, appeared to have shelved the latest U.S.-backed peace plan.
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said negotiations around the so-called "road map" plan were on hold until after the vote. "It's not in deep freeze but it's on ice until after the Israeli elections," Shoval told The Associated Press. "The moment there is an election period, such far-reaching decisions on the future of the country are always put on hold, always; it's reality."
The plan calls for Palestinian reforms, an Israeli troop pullback from Palestinian towns and the formation next year of a provisional Palestinian state that would gain full independence by 2005.
Israel's elections were also on the agenda in talks between Fatah and Hamas. Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, held separate talks with Arafat and Sharon on Thursday to update them on the four days of talks in Cairo.
Fatah and the Egyptians, who mediated the talks, asked Hamas to halt suicide bombings for three months, until after Israel's election, a Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity.
Hamas did not turn down the request, but demanded that Israel stop killing its leaders, the official said. Hamas officials said they would give a final answer in a few days after consulting with the group's leaders, he added.
Suleiman reportedly asked Sharon to halt targeted killings during the three-month period, the official said. Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said Israel would not change its policy as long as attacks on Israelis continued.
Hamas and other groups have sent attackers that have killed hundreds of Israelis over two years of fighting. Gissin said Israel had 40 warnings about planned attacks at the moment.
However, a top Israeli military official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, was more optimistic about the Fatah-Hamas talks, saying he believed they could lead to a cease-fire. He also said there was a diminished need for targeted killings because, with Israeli troops deployed in major Palestinian population centers, militants were now within reach.
"When the army wasn't in the area, the targeted killings were the only option," the official said. "We're not looking for killings; we prefer to arrest."
The official added that since a major military offensive in April, more than 3,750 Palestinians have been arrested, but that he did not know how many remained in custody.