Israel Arrests Prominent Hamas Leader, Palestinians Say

Israeli troops conducted a series of raids in the West Bank city of Nablus (search) Sunday, arresting a Hamas leader and killing a 5-year-old Palestinian boy, Palestinian witnesses said.

Also Sunday, an army force destroyed five houses in the Rafah refugee camp (search) in the Gaza Strip.

The violence came amid efforts to arrange a meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat (search), said Saturday that the summit could take place as soon as this week.

Officials have been trying for several weeks to arrange such a meeting. Both sides have expressed a desire to meet to rejuvenate efforts to implement the stalled "road map" peace plan, which envisions an immediate end to violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that if the Palestinians did not make serious peace moves in the next few months, Israel would impose its own boundary on them.

Palestinians oppose an imposed solution, which would leave them with far less land than they want for a future state, saying that only a negotiated agreement can bring peace.

Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Monday, in what he has said is an effort to persuade the Israeli government to push forward with the road map.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said Sunday that Maher would be meeting Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and President Moshe Katsav. No meetings are planned with the Palestinian side, the official added.

Palestinian officials said they expect the Egyptian minister to return next week for talks with them. The Egyptian official declined to say whether meetings with the Palestinians are planned.

In Nablus, troops arrested Hamas leader Adnan Asfour, said his brother, Said Asfour. Adnan Asfour is a prominent spokesman for the group in the West Bank.

Troops surrounded the brother's apartment building early Sunday and called on all the residents of the five-story building to come out before arresting Adnan, Said Asfour said.

The army refused to comment.

Most of the current Hamas leadership sits in the Gaza Strip, and Israel has killed or arrested most of the Hamas leaders in the West Bank during the more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Later Sunday, an Israeli soldier shot and killed a 5-year-old Palestinian boy in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, witnesses and hospital officials said. Hospital officials said the boy, Mohammed Al Araj, was killed by a bullet to the chest.

"He was coming out the house, holding a sandwich when he was shot," said Sami Sitan, a neighbor who brought him to the hospital.

The army had no immediate comment.

Also in Nablus Sunday, Noor-Eddine Emran, a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, died of gunshot wounds sustained in clashes with soldiers last week, hospital officials said.

In Gaza, troops entered the Rafah refugee camp along the Israel-Egyptian border and demolished five houses, witnesses and camp officials said. The troops also destroyed the remains of 20 previously demolished houses, they said.

The army said the raid targeted houses that had been used as cover to tunnel and place explosives under an army base last week. The army would not say how many houses had been destroyed.

Troops make frequent incursions into Rafah looking for weapons smuggling tunnels and often demolish buildings used to cover tunnel construction.

Meanwhile, leaders of Gaza's tiny Christian community said Christmas celebrations will be kept to a minimum due to the ongoing violence in the overcrowded and poor 12-mile strip of land.

"The current situation and the sadness that dominates the Palestinian territories have compelled Gaza Christians not to celebrate Christmas for the third year," said Gaza's Latin Bishop Emanuel Musalam.

In Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, the violence has decimated the tourism-based economy, throwing thousands out of work, closing shops and leaving the town's residents with little to celebrate.