Israel nabs 20 Hamas operatives in the West Bank

Hamas called the arrests of politicians and parliamentarians an effort to increase pressure for a prisoner-swap deal to free an Israeli soldier.

JERUSALEM – Israeli forces arrested 20 Hamas operatives in the West Bank early Thursday, including at least seven politicians and parliamentarians affiliated with the Islamist group, in what some observers say is an Israeli crackdown aimed at putting more pressure on the Hamas leadership in Gaza to reach a prisoner-exchange deal.

Earlier in the week, talks between Israel and Hamas – taking placing through Egyptian mediators in Cairo – came to a halt after Israel said that Hamas was asking for too much in return for its one captive soldier. Israeli officials said this included Hamas demands to release Palestinian prisoners who were directly involved in planning suicide bombings during the intifada – a request that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said went beyond Israel's "red lines."

Since then, Israeli politicians have floated several options for trying to raise Hamas's incentive to reach a deal. These have included making tighter restrictions on what goes into Gaza – allowing strictly humanitarian aid but no commercial merchandise – and taking away visitation rights of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, to make a point that Israeli army Sgt. Gilad Shalit, held captivity by Hamas since June 2006, has not seen or spoken to his family since.

Hamas says that the wave of arrests is an attempt to force their hand, and would ultimately fail.

"Israel's arrests of Hamas leaders and lawmakers in the West Bank is an attempt to blackmail the resistance and achieve gains in the prisoner case," Hamas said in a statement. "It shows the bankruptcy of the enemy. We call on the resistance factions to stick to their conditions in any prisoner exchange that will be discussed."

An Israeli military spokesman said there was no connection between the arrests and the deadlocked negotiations over Shalit.

Also on Thursday, an explosive report was published in the Haaretz newspaper, based on soldiers' statements in the month following Israel's war with Hamas in Gaza, which came to an uncertain end on Jan. 18th.

According to the soldiers' statements at a postwar conference held in February, Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under very permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property, Haaretz reported. "Their testimony runs counter to the Israel Defense Forces' claims that Israeli troops observed a high level of moral behavior during the operation," Haaretz reporter Amos Harel writes.

A transcript of a session with the soldiers on Feb. 13 was published Thursday in the newsletter for the graduates of an officers' training course, and includes disturbing descriptions of soldiers shooting at women and children when they inadvertently walked into no-go zones.

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