Published June 24, 2006
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli forces swept into southern Gaza under the cover of darkness early Saturday, rounding up two Palestinian militants in the first arrest raid in the coastal strip since Israel withdrew from the area last year.
The Israeli army said the two Hamas members were planning a large attack against Israel in the near future. No shots were fired, and the troops withdrew from the area immediately after the pinpoint operation, the army said.
The incident came as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in Gaza for talks aimed at reaching a power-sharing agreement with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh were scheduled to meet late Saturday, and participants said the two were close to reaching a deal.
"I think we are very, very close to achieving a big compromise and a final agreement, but I think we need a little time and a little patience," said Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government.
The two sides have been embroiled in a power struggle since Hamas defeated Abbas' Fatah party in January legislative elections. Abbas, a moderate, was elected separately last year.
Abbas has been pressing Hamas to accept a proposal, drafted by senior prisoners held by Israel, that calls for the implicit recognition of Israel. Abbas believes a unified political front would bring an end to weeks of bloody infighting, ease international pressure on Hamas and allow him to restart peace talks with Israel.
If Hamas doesn't accept the document, Abbas has set a July 26 referendum on the proposal. Opinion polls have indicated the Palestinian public would back Abbas in such a vote.
Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction, has so far refused to endorse the deal, despite a crippling boycott that has left the government broke. Israel and Western donors, which provide most of the funds for the Palestinian budget, have called on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Both Fatah and Hamas officials reported progress in the talks and said a deal could be reached as soon as Saturday night's meeting.
"We expect today the end of the dialogue. It is our big expectation that it will be finished during the meeting between the president and the prime minister," said Hamad.
He said Hamas has agreed to compromise on "very important issues." Contentious points of the document include endorsing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in effect recognizing the Jewish state; ending Palestinian attacks inside Israel; and forming a national unity government.
Despite the optimism, participants have repeatedly said they were close to agreement for more than a week now without reaching a deal.
Officials said the remaining area of disagreement focused on a proposal in the prisoners' document calling for the establishment of a coalition government. Hamas currently dominates the Palestinian legislature and Cabinet.
Before heading to Gaza from his West Bank headquarters on Friday, Abbas said he too hoped to "reach a deal soon."
The Palestinian dialogue has come amid growing tensions with Israel. Palestinian militants in Gaza have repeatedly fired homemade rockets into southern Israel, drawing tough Israeli reprisals.
While the rocket fire has caused few casualties, it has severely disrupted life in Israeli border towns. Israeli airstrikes aimed at rocket-launching militants, meanwhile, have caused 13 civilian deaths in recent weeks.
In Saturday's raid, east of the southern Gaza town of Rafah, Israeli commandos arrested two Hamas militants, the army said.
Capt. Tal Levram, a spokesman for Israel's southern command, called the raid a "surgical operation," saying no tanks or gunfire were needed. He described the raid as an isolated incident and said it did not signal a new tactic in Israel's war against the militants.
"They were involved in something that was supposed to happen very soon," he said, declining to elaborate.
Israeli ground forces have entered Gaza a total of three times since Israel completed its unilateral withdrawal from the area last September, but Saturday marked the first time troops have arrested militants.
In the other incursions, troops cleared explosives near the border, and briefly entered Gaza to kill three militants who were launching rockets.
Hamas confirmed Saturday's incursion, saying troops entered the southern Gaza Strip, east of the town of Rafah, about 700 meters (yards) to storm a house, make the arrests, and then withdraw. They stayed in for about an hour, the group said.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the two militants were not members of the group. But local Hamas activists said the pair were sons of a prominent local Hamas leader and known to be members of the group.