JERUSALEM — LESS than two weeks before Israel's autonomy agreement with the Palestinians goes into effect, the Israeli Army has launched a drive to capture wanted Palestinian gunmen.
Hamas, the militant Islamist group, called a strike yesterday in the Gaza Strip to protest widespread Army raids on Saturday in which two of its members were killed and 16 arrested. The raids drew a protest from Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and PLO officials complained they violated the agreement.
The operation was ``in breach of the agreement,'' Bassam Abu Sharif, political adviser to Mr. Arafat, told Israel Radio. ``Stopping violence was an agreement and we call this violence against Palestinians.''
Freih Abu Middain, head of the Gaza Bar Association and a delegate to peace talks, says: ``The Army is not complying with the rules or the spirit of the agreement.''
Saturday's raids, in which three houses were destroyed and ten damaged by Israeli Army fire, followed similar operations near the West Bank town of Jenin last week.
On Wednesday, Israeli soldiers captured Ahmad Khmeil, head of the notorious Black Panther organization, and five followers. The most wanted man on the West Bank, Mr. Khmeil had evaded capture for three years. The arrests provoked fierce protests because Khmeil's group is loyal to Mr. Arafat's Fatah wing of the PLO, and had obeyed his orders to observe a cease-fire with the Israeli Army.
``In practice, there is more emphasis on going after Hamas,'' which opposes the agreement, says Israeli Army spokesman Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel. But military leaders are still hunting all armed Palestinians.
``We will continue to pursue those fugitives directly involved in serious attacks on Israelis and Palestinians,'' Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ehud Barak said last week. ``This is the right thing, for these people to sit in jail until things are clarified.'' Although this was seen as a hint at a future mass prisoner release, the arrests have soured the atmosphere, Palestinians say.
``They make those who reject the agreement stronger,'' complains Mr. Abu Middain. This is political stupidity.''