Israel Denies Latest Campaign Targets Hamas Political Leaders

Israeli soldiers shot and killed three Palestinians on Tuesday as a senior Israeli security official said a raid on the home of a founder of Hamas did not signal that Israel is targeting political leaders of the group for arrest.

When Israeli forces stormed the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza early Monday and arrested Mohammed Taha, 65, a co-founder of the violent Islamic Hamas movement, it was taken to mean that, in a break from past practice, Israel was going after top Hamas political figures in addition to militants who plan and carry out attacks.

However, a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Taha was not the target of the operation. Instead, he said, Israel was aiming for his son Ayman, linked to the top Hamas bomb maker.

Mohammed Taha was wounded by gunfire and captured while his five sons were arrested and his house was blown up. The Israeli military said Taha was implicated in terror attacks.

Eight Palestinians were killed in the raid and, for the second day in a row, the U.S. government protested the increasingly intense Israeli operations. After State Department criticism on Monday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that Israel has the right to defend itself, but added, "We have concerns about actions that go beyond and that bring harm to the innocent, including innocent Palestinians."

Israel stepped up its raids into Gaza after a Feb. 15 bombing, claimed by Hamas, that destroyed an Israeli tank and killed four soldiers inside.

In violence on Tuesday, soldiers surrounded an Internet cafe in the West Bank town of Jenin, setting off a gun battle in which an 18-year-old Palestinian was killed, Palestinians said. The Israelis arrested a fugitive who was in the cafe. Two Israeli border police were wounded.

The Israeli military said soldiers arrested seven suspected militants in the raid.

Also Tuesday, a 75-year-old Bedouin was killed by Israeli army gunfire near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in Gaza, relatives said. They said he lives about 500 yards from the settlement and was returning home when he was shot. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.

In the West Bank town of Tulkarem, a Palestinian was killed when soldiers fired on people throwing rocks at tanks, witnesses and hospital officials said. The military said soldiers shot at and hit a man with a gun.

In a political development, Palestinians said Tuesday that Yasser Arafat is considering appointing billionaire businessman Monib al-Masri, 65, as prime minister, but officials from Arafat's Fatah movement insisted that the premier must come from Fatah, preferably Arafat's longtime deputy, Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, a moderate, is tipped as a possible successor to Arafat. He has called the violent 29-month Palestinian struggle a mistake.

Arafat grudgingly agreed to appoint a premier under pressure from the United States, Europe, Israel and his own people, after charges of corruption and terrorism in his administration.

The issue now is how much power the premier would have. Israel and the United States insist that Arafat must be sidelined, turning most functions over to the new prime minister. However, many Palestinians reject the attempt to neutralize their leader, unchallenged for nearly four decades as the head of the Palestinian movement.

Appointing a nonpolitical businessman as premier would indicate that Arafat intended to retain most power himself, Palestinians said.