The troops, wearing black ski masks and carrying assault rifles, entered the Nablus hospitals before dawn Saturday. They snatched one militant from his hospital bed, where he was in critical condition, and found another in a basement with a pistol in his hand, the army said.
Human rights groups and Palestinians condemned the raids, fearing hospitals are no longer neutral ground in the ongoing fighting, and saying that international law bans military operations in medical facilities.
The army countered that international law prevents militants from seeking refuge in a hospital. Including Saturday's actions, the army has carried out four hospital raids in the last two months, and military officials said there would be more.
Later Saturday, about 4,000 Peace Now demonstrators gathered in front of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Jerusalem residence chanting "Sharon, Go Home" and carrying torches. "Sharon: Terminator of Israel" one banner said, a clear expression of the crowd's anger at the prime minister's frequent crackdowns on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Gaza, Israeli troops in jeeps and tanks surrounded a Palestinian police station near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim late Saturday, shooting at the building and demanding it be evacuated, witnesses said. No injuries were immediately reported.
Arriving in jeeps at about 3 a.m., troops swept into the hospitals and confined doctors and other staff to rooms for more than an hour as they kicked open doors in room-to-room searches, witnesses said.
Soldiers entered the intensive care unit of Anglican Hospital and grabbed Khaled Hamed from his bed. The 25-year-old Hamas militant was badly injured Wednesday when explosives inside a car he was riding in went off accidentally.
Dr. Annan Abdel Hak said Hamed lost two fingers in the blast and suffered bleeding in his brain and light burns on his body.
"I explained to the soldiers how critical his condition is," Hak said. "Then they removed the machines from his body."
Hamed was taken in a military ambulance to Beilinson Hospital in central Israel and was in stable condition, a military source said. Hamed had planned suicide bombing attacks, the source said.
Elsewhere in Nablus, troops stormed Rafidiyeh Hospital and arrested an armed member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group with links to Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction. The military said troops found the man, whom Palestinians identified as Jawad Ishtayeh, 27, hiding in the hospital's cellar and armed with a pistol.
The army said the man was healthy, and Palestinian security sources said the man was not a patient and was apparently using the hospital as a hide-out.
A U.S. peace activist witnessed the raid in Rafidiyeh Hospital, where he was recovering from light gunshot wounds to his leg he suffered during stone-throwing clashes Friday.
"Around 3 a.m. I was woken up with a flashlight shining in my face. I opened my eyes and had an M-16 pointed in my face," said Mark Turner, 24, from Boulder, Colorado.
Masked soldiers stood at the foot of hospital beds for more than an hour, pointing guns at staff and patients and warning people to stay quiet, he said. Phone lines were cut and soldiers ordered some of the staff to lie on the ground, Turner said.
Patients were told to put their hands in the air and a soldier filmed them, Turner said.
Israeli army spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold said Palestinian militants had a new strategy of hiding out in hospitals to avoid arrest. Troops would continue to search hospitals when they believed militants were either there as patients or were hiding out there, she said.
"Hospitals should not be used to harbor terrorists," Feingold said.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat called the raid a "grave measure."
"This is the most flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, when hospitals are not safe anymore from Israeli atrocities," Erekat said.
Noam Hoffstater, a spokesman for the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, said the group was disturbed by the raid. "A hospital is not supposed to be a refuge or a hiding place (for militants) on the one hand, but it can't be invaded every other day," he said.
In August, troops patrolling Nablus fired at three Palestinian fugitives hiding on the roof of Rafidiyeh Hospital, killing one and seriously wounding two. The men had sought refuge there during an Israeli arrest sweep and ignored doctors' pleas to leave. Four days later, troops snatched the two injured men, carrying them out of the hospital on stretchers.
On Sept. 24, about 50 Israeli troops stormed a hospital in the northern West Bank town of Qalqiliya, searching for Mikdam Jaber, a militant from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, who had a bullet wound in the stomach from a clash with troops earlier in the day.
Fellow militants carried him out a back door and escaped before troops could arrest him, witnesses said. Staff said the troops caused heavy damage and fired shots inside the hospital to break open locked doors.
The director of Rafidiyeh Hospital, Husam al-Johari, was upset with both the soldiers and the militants. "We are not police, we are doctors first," he said. "We don't have the ability to stop people from coming in, to check ID's, to act as a policing force in the hospital."