Israel Seizes Scores Of Militants

In this picture made available by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli troops conduct an overnight operation in the West Bank town of Hebron early Tuesday June 24, 2003. Israeli forces swept through the city and arrested more than 130 Palestinians, during a roundup focused on the city's Hamas network, the army said. The arrests came just days after Israeli troops shot and killed Hebron's Hamas leader Abdullah Kawasme.
Israeli forces swept through Hebron early Tuesday and arrested more than 130 Palestinians in a roundup targeting the West Bank city's Hamas network, the army said.

The army says the militants were behind several recent suicide bombings. But Palestinian officials condemned the raid, saying Israel is sabotaging their efforts to persuade Hamas to accept a cease-fire, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger.

The arrests came just days after Israeli troops shot and killed Abdullah Kawasme, the militant group's leader in Hebron. Israel blames him for the deaths of 52 Israelis.

Palestinian residents said troops rounded up people with any Hamas connections, including relatives of Hamas members. Elsewhere in the West Bank, troops arrested 30 other suspected militants, the army said.

The sweep comes as Hamas and other militant groups are on the verge of agreeing to halt attacks on Israelis, Palestinian officials say.

A U.S.-backed peace plan, the "road map" to Palestinian statehood by 2005, has been hung up over the two sides' inability to end 33 months of fighting, with each saying, in effect, that the other must go first.

An agreement by Palestinian militias to suspend their armed uprising could be a major breakthrough and a way out. However, Israeli officials remained deeply suspicious, saying a truce is just a ploy by militants to win time to prepare for more shootings and bombings.

The terms of the emerging deal between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the militias were not clear. One Palestinian mediator said Monday that the truce will be open-ended and apply not only to Israel, but also the West Bank and Gaza Strip — a key condition for Israel.

Militant groups traditionally distinguish between attacks in Israel proper versus operations in land Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War.

However, a leader of one of the armed groups said on condition of anonymity that Hamas will only accept a three-month truce.

Hamas has repeatedly walked away from the Egyptian-brokered truce efforts, but the Islamic militant group is feeling the squeeze after the Iraq war. Washington has urged Arab nations to stop funding Hamas, Syria closed the offices of Palestinian militant groups and Israel threatened to assassinate Hamas leaders.

Leaders of the smaller Islamic Jihad group are trying to persuade activists to accept a limited deal, but are facing stiff opposition, he said.

Palestinian officials, including Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath and Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, were optimistic, saying they expect a positive response by the militias. A Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, said that "the decision will hopefully come very soon."

Palestinian security minister Mohammed Dahlan told Israel TV's Channel 10 that the agreement would call for a halt to attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Israel.

According to The New York Times, Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Fatah faction who is in jail in Israel awaiting trial on charges of terrorist murder, has been a key advocate for a truce.

His argument to the Palestinian factions, says the newspaper, is that a cease-fire would ensure that world pressure for additional concessions would fall squarely on the Israelis.

The involvement of Barghouti would probably mean that another militia, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, also would honor a truce, and that could make it easier for Hamas to accept.

However, Israeli officials said a Hamas-Abbas understanding might not necessarily be acceptable to them, noting that under the peace plan, the Palestinian Authority must disarm militias, not court them.

At best, Israel would accept an internal Palestinian arrangement as a brief precursor to a crackdown, officials said.

A top Israeli security official said the truce talks give Hamas too much leverage. "It's unacceptable for the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United States to agree to a situation in which a certain Hamas leader decides when progress (on the road map) will be made," said Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad. "It's an easy solution that will cost us in blood."

Palestinians say they cannot afford an open confrontation with the militant groups now. Abbas lacks the political popularity to sell such a deal, and Palestinian security forces have been decimated by nearly three years of fighting with Israel. Any crackdown could trigger civil war, they say.

Elsewhere Tuesday, in the Gaza Strip, troops shot and wounded a Palestinian trying to crawl under the fence of a Jewish settlement, an army spokesman said. The man was found to be carrying two knives, the army said.