Israeli troops abducted deputy Palestinian prime minister and senior Hamas member Nasser Eddin Al Shaer Saturday, in the latest move against the governing Islamist movement.
Israel has detained more than 60 Hamas officials since the June 25 capture of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip.
The Hamas-led government condemned the new arrest as an attempt to destroy the Palestinian administration. “At 4:30 (0130 GMT) in the morning the soldiers came to our house and took Nasser,” Shaer’s wife Huda said.
Palestinian security sources said 30 army jeeps entered the West Bank town of Ramallah early Saturday morning and left immediately after the arrest of the 45-year-old Shaer, who is also education minister.
An Israeli army spokesman confirmed the arrest “as part of our fight against the radical Hamas movement,” which refuses to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist and to renounce violence.
The armed wing of Hamas – which carried out a string of suicide attacks against Israel in recent years – is one of the three militant groups that claimed the abduction of the Israeli soldier.
As part of its crackdown against Hamas, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, the Jewish state on June 29 detained 64 Hamas officials, including eight ministers and 26 lawmakers.
Four of them were released but three more were detained later, including Aziz Dweik, who is the parliament speaker and the Palestinian administration’s second in command. “The Palestinian government condemns the acts of the occupation forces which arrested deputy prime minister and education minister Shaer,” government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said.
“This is the continuation of the criminal campaign waged by the occupation government against the Palestinian government,” he added. “Israel’s goal is the eradication or weakening of any Palestinian government or authority.”
Hamas described the capture of the deputy premier as “political blackmail.”
The Israeli crackdown, which has also involved large military incursions into Palestinian areas, began on June 28, three days after the capture of the 19-year-old Israeli corporal. Since his abduction, there has been no evidence that Gilad Shalit was still alive but contacts led by Egypt have continued in a bid to reach an agreement on a prisoner exchange.
Following the capture, Israel considerably turned up the heat on Hamas, launching a massive military operation against the Gaza Strip, which included air raids on Prime Minister Ismail Haniya’s office. Around 180 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed by Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip since the soldier was nabbed.
Shaer is a father of six from the northern West Bank and former dean of the faculty of Islamic studies at Nablus’ An Najah University who was largely unknown before his appointment in the Palestinian cabinet last March.
He is perceived as one of the more liberal members of the Hamas government but is not one of the movement’s heavyweights or historical leaders. He was already arrested twice by the Israeli army and has spent months in administrative detention in recent years.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official from the former ruling Fatah party, condemned Shaer’s capture and deplored that it risked scuppering Palestinian efforts to form a national unity government.
“This arrest torpedoes all efforts to form a national unity government that would implement the program of president [Mahmoud] Abbas,” Erekat said, calling for the release of all detained Hamas officials.
The moderate Abbas has been pushing for the creation of a unity government with the rival Hamas movement, which he hopes could help alleviate international and Israeli pressure on the Palestinian territories. Haniya has insisted he would only consider forming a national unity government if his movement’s officials were freed.
Some 300 Hamas supporters demonstrated Saturday in front of the Red Cross building in the southern West Bank city of Hebron to demand the release of all Hamas officials held by Israel. They chanted slogans in support of the prisoners, waving their pictures as well as Palestinian and Hamas flags.