RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israeli soldiers burst into the home of the Palestinian deputy prime minister before dawn Saturday and took him away for questioning, detaining the highest-ranking Hamas official in a seven-week-old crackdown against the ruling Islamic militant group.
Palestinian officials condemned the arrest of Nasser Shaer, a former university professor known as a pragmatist in Hamas, and accused Israel of undermining their efforts to form a broad government coalition.
Israel launched its latest crackdown against Hamas, which controls the Palestinian legislature and Cabinet, shortly after Hamas-allied militants from Gaza captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid June 25. Despite an ongoing Israeli military offensive in Gaza, the soldier has not been freed.
Since the kidnapping, Israeli forces arrested eight Hamas Cabinet ministers and more than two dozen lawmakers, including the speaker of parliament, since late June.
But Shaer, 45, had eluded arrest and gone into hiding.
Shaer's wife, Huda, 43, said he was seized at about 4:30 a.m. Saturday at an apartment where his family, including six children, had been hiding for several weeks. She said the family had cut off contact with all their friends in Ramallah and rarely ventured outside.
"The whole family took precautions to prevent the Israelis from discovering the address and coming to arrest him," she said.
Trying to avoid arrest, Shaer did not appear in public or speak to the media. He made only occasional visits to his office, using alternate routes to get there and taking paperwork with him to other locations, said Cabinet minister Abdel Rahman Zeidan, a friend of Shaer.
It was unclear how Israeli troops tracked down Shaer. However, Israel's Shin Bet security service runs a network of informers in the West Bank and Gaza. The army confirmed the arrest, but gave no details.
Shaer, who holds a doctorate in comparitive religions from England's Manchester University, is considered to be among the more pragmatic members of the Hamas government. He also serves as education minister.
The international community has cut off funds to the Hamas government and said aid would only be restored if Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel.
In interview with The Associated Press earlier this year, Shaer said Hamas was searching for a way to accept international realities without caving in to pressure. "Hamas does not want to lose its supporters, but at the same time does not want to fight the whole world," he said at the time.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev defended the arrest, saying Shaer is a member of a group that the U.S., Canada and European Union also have branded a terrorist organization. "Hamas knows what it has to do if it wants to be considered moderate by the international community," Regev said.
Palestinian officials, both in Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas' rival Fatah movement, condemned the arrest.
Saeb Erekat, a Fatah lawmaker, said the arrest would hurt efforts by the moderate Abbas to form a coalition with Hamas. Abbas hopes a unity government will pressure Hamas to moderate its views and open the way for renewed peace talks with Israel.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called on the international community, including the United Nations, to secure Shaer's release. "We believe this kidnapping is trying to tighten the leash on our government," he said.
In other developments Saturday, a Palestinian gunman attacked and killed an Israeli soldier in the West Bank on Saturday, before being shot and killed himself, the army said.
The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred near an Israeli settlement in the northern Jordan Valley.
In Gaza, hundreds of members of the Palestinian security forces briefly stormed banks and burned tires, demanding the banks return money deducted from a small cash advance they received after months of going without wages. In one incident, about 80 security officers, many of them armed with assault rifles, broke into the Arab Bank in Gaza City, and argued with the manager.
A security official said the bank later promised to restore the money, but bank officials declined comment.
Suffering the impact of crippling international sanctions, the ruling Hamas party has been unable to pay 165,000 government workers since taking office in March.
Since March, employees have received only partial salaries in small payments, them to take bank loans and buy food on credit. On Saturday, the workers discovered the banks had deducted some of the advance to cover the loans.