Israel Seizes Hamas Ministers and Lawmakers

Israeli forces in Gaza have arrested dozens of Palestinian ministers and lawmakers from the ruling Hamas party. Israel entered Gaza after Palestinian militants captured a young Israeli soldier. Israel has promised continuing military action if the soldier is not released. Also, the body of a kidnapped 18-year-old Jewish settler was found in the West Bank, according to Israeli security officials. Steve Inskeep talks to Linda Gradstein.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Many leaders of the Palestinian government are in jail today. Israel arrested dozens of political leaders from the Palestinian group Hamas. The list of detainees includes eight members of the cabinet. These arrests come at the same time that Israel continues is military moves in and around the Gaza Strip. And all these moves came after an Israeli soldier was captured.

NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Ramallah this morning, and she joins us now. And Linda, what are Israeli officials saying about the arrests of these Hamas officials? What's their purpose here?

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Well, Israeli officials say that they're not arrested as bargaining chips to exchange for the soldier. They say that it's part of an operation against a terrorist organization, Hamas. The officials say that these people who were arrested will be investigated, brought before a judge, and that they will be charged.

However, both Israeli and Palestinian analysts say that it is part of a move to increase pressure on militant groups like Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committees to try to pressure them to free the Israeli soldier. Israel says that they believe that Hamas is holding the soldier. The military wing of Hamas is one of three groups that claimed responsibility for the raid on Sunday that killed two Israeli soldiers and led to the capture of the third.

INSKEEP: How significant is it now that a substantial chunk of the government of the Palestinian Authority is in jail?

GRADSTEIN: Well, the question is, you know, how is this government going to function? Now, I just spoke to an advisor who is very close to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and he said, well, the government wasn't functioning to begin with, so what's the difference?

But it's certainly led to a lot of anger here. On the day-to-day level, Palestinians are saying the schools will stay open, doctors - you know, hospitals will stay open. But, you can't have a government functioning long term without any officials in it. And apparently, about 87 senior political and military officials have been arrested. And Hamas officials are calling it, quote, "An open war against the Palestinian government and people," and warning that Israel will pay the consequences.

INSKEEP: You mentioned a lot of anger in Ramallah, where you are. What exactly are you seeing on the streets?

GRADSTEIN: People are both angry and worried. They're angry at Israel partly because of the arrests, but also because Israel has hit civilian infrastructure in Gaza. About 700,000 people in Gaza are without electricity. Some of them are without water. So, there is the sense that Israel is kind of stepping up the pressure, but also escalating the situation.

People here are certainly worried of the repeat of an Israeli invasion like Israel invaded Ramallah in 2002 at the height of the intifada. But, they're more concerned about what's going on in Gaza. And a lot of Palestinians have said that what Israel is doing has actually increased Palestinian unity and support for the Hamas government.

INSKEEP: And let's talk about what could be seen as an escalation on the other side. Recently, an 18-year-old Jewish settler disappeared. Now he's been found dead near you. What happened?

GRADSTEIN: That's right. Here in Ramallah, in one of the neighborhoods, during the night, his body was found by Israeli soldiers after Israel had arrested some Palestinians who they thought were involved in the kidnapping. And Palestinian gunmen from the Popular Resistance Committee said that they were the ones who had executed the 18-year-old Jewish settler.

He was apparently captured while he was hitchhiking from one part of the West Bank to another, and Israeli officials have called on teenagers not to hitchhike. It's actually a very common way of transportation. And, there's a lot of anger in Israel over his killing, and a lot of, you know, hopes that the Israeli soldier will not be killed. At the same time, Palestinian officials say that Israel's escalation makes it harder to free the soldier.

INSKEEP: Okay, that's NPR's Linda Gradstein in Ramallah. Linda, thanks very much.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you.

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