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After an eight-year manhunt, Israeli security forces early Tuesday seized the Ramallah-area commander of Hamas' military wing, Israel's most wanted man in the West Bank.

Sheikh Ibrahim Hamed, 41, has been wanted since 1998 for terror attacks that claimed the lives of 78 civilians and Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

Hamed was arrested at a hideout in the al-Balua neighborhood of Ramallah, surrendering to a combined force of Israel Defense Forces troops from the Duchifat infantry battalion, the Shin Bet security service, and the police's Yamam anti-terror unit.

The force surrounded the house in which Hamed was staying, but Hamed refused calls to come out. The troops then opened fire on the house, and when a bulldozer began to push against the walls of the structure, Hamed emerged, alone and apparently unarmed.

Local resident Mohammed Azzam, 48, said he watched the arrest from his balcony facing the two-story building where Hamed was holed up. The ground floor of the hideout consisted of shops with large iron doors. Two apartments were on the floor above.

Azzam said that at the start of the operation, an IDF bulldozer rammed the iron shop door. Over the loudspeaker, troops then called out Hamed's name in accent-free Arabic. They told Hamed they would demolish the building with him inside if he didn't surrender, Azzam said.

Hamed emerged, wearing a light-colored shirt and gray pants. Following instructions over the loudspeaker, he took off his shirt and pants, then walked toward the soldiers in his underwear. Palestinian militants surrendering to troops are routinely asked to strip to make sure they are not wearing explosives on their body.

After the arrest, soldiers entered the building and blew out the doors and windows in the two apartments, as a robot searched for explosives. Troops removed clothes from the building.

The two apartments were sparsely furnished with bamboo chairs and mattresses. A reporter touring the hideout saw two copies of Newsweek magazine on the floor.

The arrest operation then continued in a search for members of the network Hamed headed. A total of 12 Palestinians were arrested in overnight raids across the West Bank.

Among the attacks Hamed is believed to have helped plan and direct were:

  • A car bombing in Zion Square in the heart of Jerusalem five years ago, an attack which killed 11 people.

  • A March 2002 suicide bombing at the Moment coffee house adjacent to the Prime Minister's official residence in the city, in which 12 people were killed.

  • A double suicide bombing in September 2003, which killed a total of 17 people at the Hillel cafe in Jerusalem's German colony, and adjacent to the Tsrifin IDF base.

  • A December 2001 double suicide bombing in Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, in which 11 people died.

  • A July 2002 bombing at the cafeteria of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem that killed five Americans and four Israelis.

    The IDF colonel who led the capture said Hamas would have trouble replacing Hamed.

    "What made him special was his creativity in finding very complex ways to attack Israelis," the colonel told Army Radio.

    Eluded manhunt through strict secrecyThroughout his years in hiding, Hamed maintained strict secrecy, and was in contact with only a few of the members of his network.

    His modus operandi was to act relatively infrequently, and then to disappear, in an effort to make it more difficult to track him down.

    He was considered a figure of some mystery, and for years security forces questioned whether they had an authentic photograph of him.

    In a complex operation in Ramallah two years ago, security forces came close to capturing Hamed, killing two of his senior aides. Hamed escaped at the last minute.

    Hamed was not known to have been involved recently in planning terror attacks, following a decision by the Hamas leadership to hold to a relative truce, in effect since January, 2005.

    Hamed's nephew, Ayman, said his uncle has been wanted by Israel since 1998. For some time, he was held in a Palestinian jail for involvement in the Hamas military wing, but was released in 2002, during a major Israeli military offensive in the West Bank. Hamed graduated from the West Bank's Bir Zeit University in 1993, with degrees in history and political science, the nephew said.

    Hamed grew up in the West Bank village of Silwad, and belongs to the same clan as Khaled Mashaal, the top Hamas leader based in Damascus.