Ramallah/Gaza : Israel has arrested 33 senior Hamas officials in raids throughout the West Bank, widening a campaign against the ruling Palestinian party in response to more than a week of intense rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.
The officials included Education Minister Nasser Eddin al-Shaer in Nablus, three parliament members and six mayors, including those of Nablus and Qalqilya, Adli Yaish and Wajih Qawwas, Palestinian sources said.
Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said the arrests Thursday were a "message" to Hamas that Israel did not tolerate the rocket fire.
"I think that we have shown all the restraint necessary, and I think that at this moment we will take any action that can have an impact to restore calm," Peretz told Israel Army Radio.
This type of action did not create more bloodshed and confrontation, he added justifying the move.
But Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, strongly condemned the arrests calling them "punitive and revenge measures" that would only "increase the tension" and have "grave consequences".
Information Minister Moustafa Barghouti, at a news conference in Ramallah, called the arrests an "assault" against "the democratically elected Palestinian institutions" and called for "immediate and direct pressure" on Israel to stop it.
Hamas' political leadership in Damascus also issued a statement criticising the arrests and said Hamas would not "change its ideology of resisting occupation with all possible means, military resistance foremost".
US State Department deputy spokesperson Tom Casey said the United States has contacted the Israelis to express concerns about the arrests.
"While we understand and respect Israel's need to defend itself, we do wish to have them take into consideration the consequences of their actions, including its effect on the ability to promote the kind of dialogue that we want to see happen," Casey said.
More than 40 members of the 132-seat Palestinian parliament are currently in Israeli prisons. Most of them are yet to be indicted.
Late Thursday night, five additional Israeli airstrikes were conducted in the Gaza Strip against Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Rafah, Khan Younis and Gaza City.
One of the strikes hit near the offices of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. The Israeli military said it was a building used by the Hamas organisation but Palestinians said it was a security post near Haniya's office.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Abbas urged an end to the "idle" Hamas rocket fire at a joint news conference in Gaza with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana who too said the Palestinian "rockets and the Israeli reactions must be stopped".
Abbas made the call after overnight talks at his Gaza City office with representatives of militant factions, including Hamas, at which he failed to convince them to restore a six-month ceasefire with Israel in Gaza that has collapsed over the escalation in rocket-fire of the past 10 days.
During this time, close to 200 Hamas-made Qassam rockets had been launched at southern Israel. At least five additional rockets landed in southern Israel Thursday, the Israeli military said.
The Israeli Knesset extended for an additional 10 days the "emergency situation" declared Sunday in the section of the country close to the Gaza Strip.
Also, the Israeli army conducted "routine" military operations in Nablus Thursday evening, and arrested four militants from Abbas' Fatah movement, a spokesperson said. Gunfire was exchanged between the militants and Israeli soldiers.
Israel also continued its retaliatory strikes in the Gaza Strip. The number of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes since Wednesday last week has risen to 38.