Attorney General Menachem Mazuz refused a request by the Shin Bet security service and the government to place dozens of senior Hamas officials under administrative detention or hold them as "bargaining chips" under the Unlawful Combatants Law.
Mazuz insisted that the arrests be carried out under ordinary criminal warrants that would require legal proceedings against the Hamas officials under the Prevention of Terror Ordinance. They will probably be charged with membership in or leadership of a terrorist organization.
The detainees will be brought before a judge for a remand hearing within the next 96 hours, and legal proceedings against them will be carried out in military courts in the territories.
Israel intends to arrest more senior Hamas figures in addition to the dozens of Palestinian lawmakers and ministers arrested in a predawn raid Thursday, the Justice Ministry said Thursday.
The detention of Hamas parliamentarians in the early hours of Thursday morning had been planned several weeks ago and received approval from Mazuz on Wednesday. The same day, Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin presented Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with the list of Hamas officials slated for detention.
The Group of Eight industrialized countries said Thursday that the Hamas arrests raised "particular concerns."
A Justice Ministry spokesperson said that the change in policy towards ministers and parliamentarians who are members of Hamas was carried out with the approval of and in coordination with the judiciary, and that Israel intends on arresting more Hamas officials.
"We are talking about people suspected of criminal violations such as membership in terror organizations, affiliation with terrorist leadership, and other violations," the spokesperson said.
"The criminal proceedings will follow accepted legal standards. The suspects will be entitled to legal defense, and the arrest and investigation will be subject to judicial oversight. If a charge against a suspect is found to be baseless, he will be released," the spokesperson added.
Israel Defense Forces troops launched a major arrest operation overnight, detaining 64 members of the Hamas political wing, including cabinet members and parliamentarians, as well as 23 militants.
The move is part of Israel's expanded military operation against the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Authority.
The arrests took place in Ramallah, Qalqilyah, Hebron, Jenin and East Jerusalem, according to Palestinian reports. Soldiers carried arrest warrants signed by judges that were issued following cooperative preparatory work by the state prosecution and police.
"The detention of elected members of the Palestinian government and legislature raises particular concerns," said a joint statement by the G8, which also called on Israel to exercise "utmost restraint."
"[This]... is a pre-planned plot to destroy the [Palestinian] Authority, the government and the parliament and to bring the Palestinian people to their knees," Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri said Thursday.
There appeared to be some confusion Thursday as to whether Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nasser a-Shaer, had been one of those detainees or whether he had evaded capture and gone into hiding in the West Bank.
The Hamas ministers had apparently expected the arrests. A-Shaer's wife said Thursday that he had avoided the military arrest operation as he had not been sleeping at home when the sweep took place.
He reportedly had disconnected all his cellular telephones for fear Israeli security services would again attempt to track him down and arrest him.
A-Shaer's wife said she had been in contact with him, and that he was not arrested. Employees at the Ministry of Education offices in Ramallah reported seeing him in the building in the late morning.
But GOC Southern Command Major General Yair Navbeh confirmed at a news conference Thursday that a-Shaer was among those who had been detained.
Warning to Haniyeh On Thursday morning, National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer hinted that Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is not exempt from arrest or harm.
"No one is immune... This is not a government. It is a murderous organization," Ben-Eliezer said.
A Hamas official called the arrests an "open war against the Palestinian government and people," and said that Israel must be prepared to pay their consequences.
"We have no government, we have nothing. They have all been taken," Saeb Erekat, an ally of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, said of the arrests. "This is absolutely unacceptable and we demand their release immediately."
Israel Radio quoted Shin Bet security chief Yuval Diskin as having told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the day of the kidnapping: "If the soldier is not returned in 24 hours, Israel will not allow the Palestinian government to survive."
The Foreign Ministry released a statement Thursday saying the recent security-related events, particularly the Qassam rocket fire and the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, were realizations of the Palestinian government's policies of terror.
The acceptance of responsibility for the kidnapping and the Hamas-led government's demand to exchange prisoners prove that Hamas' primary objective is not concern for the Palestinian people but determination to implement its policies of terror, the statement said.
"As a result of this, and out of a basic obligation to its citizens, Israel decided to implement orders to prevent terrorism," it went on.
Included among the detainees were Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek; Minister Samir Abu Aysha; Khaled Abu Arfeh; and Jerusalem Affairs Ministers Naef Rajoub, the brother of senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub.
Five of the cabinet ministers were arrested at the same Ramallah hotel.
Ahmed al-Najjar, a receptionist at the hotel, said he was asleep when troops arrived after midnight, demanded a list of guests, and took the men from their rooms at gunpoint.
Palestinian attorneys representing security detainees at the IDF military court in Salem said Thursday morning they refuse to represent the Hamas members arrested overnight because they maintain the arrests themselves are illegitimate.
In Ramallah, troops arrested at least two cabinet ministers and four lawmakers, all from Hamas, in a raid on a complex of buildings, Palestinian security officials said.
Labor Minister Mohammed Barghouti was stopped on his way to his village, Kabur, just north of Ramallah. Military jeeps stopped his car, ordered him out of the vehicle and took him away, the officials said.
In East Jerusalem, lawmakers Mohammed Abu Tir, Wael al-Husseini and Ahmed a-Tun were arrested.
Also, the Hamas mayor of the West Bank town of Qalqilyah and his deputy were detained, security officials said.
An IDF spokeswoman said the arrests were part of an operation against suspected terrorists, and were not "bargaining chips" for the release of abducted IDF soldier Corporal Gilad Shalit.
"They are not bargaining chips for the return of the soldier. It was simply an operation against a terrorist organization," she said. "They will be investigated, brought before a judge to extend their detention and charge sheets will be prepared."
The arrests are part of several moves designed to increase pressure on the militant group to free a captive soldier. Israel blames Hamas for the abduction of Shalit, kidnapped Sunday by militants who attacked an IDF post near the border with Gaza.
Army Radio speculated that the lawmakers might be used to trade for the captured soldier, but the IDF refused to comment on the matter.
The operation Thursday night came amidst IDF operations in the southern Gaza Strip aimed at securing Shalit's release.
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