JERUSALEM - The latest pre-dawn raid by the Israeli army into the Gaza Strip ended yesterday with the capture of a founding member of the militant group Hamas and signaled a stepped-up campaign against the organization.
Eight Palestinians, including two children and a pregnant woman, were killed during the operation in which tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters swarmed the narrow dirt streets of the Bureij refugee camp, where about 30,000 people live.
The heaviest fighting occurred at the home of Mohammed Taha, one of the five founding members of Hamas, or Islamic Resistance Movement. The group is devoted to the destruction of Israel and has dispatched dozens of suicide bombers who have claimed hundreds of Israeli lives.
Taha, who is in his mid- to late 60s, was wounded and, along with his five sons, taken into military custody. The army said two of its soldiers were injured when men threw grenades from inside the house during a prolonged gunbattle.
Hamas described Taha, a bearded sheik and schoolteacher, as an aging leader long retired from his work. Israeli authorities exiled him to Lebanon in 1992 but allowed him to return a year later under terms of an interim peace accord.
"He is now an old man out of activity," said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas co-founder and fiery spokesman. "They just arrested him for things he did 10 years ago. He is just doing social activities in the camp."
The Israeli army called Taha's arrest a serious blow against Hamas and a warning to the rest of the group's senior echelon. He is the highest-ranking Hamas member to be detained or killed in the past 29 months of fighting.
Over the past five weeks, the army has conducted a string of limited raids similar to yesterday's, sending a large force into refugee camps or other neighborhoods to capture a few wanted militants or destroy homes and suspected weapons shops. More than 45 Palestinians have been killed.
"The Hamas infrastructure in Gaza is very strong," said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli Army spokeswoman. "We don't want to create the impression that they are immune. These operations are sending a very clear message that if you are engaged in terrorism, you will pay a price."
Feingold said that militants have fired more than 50 crude Kassam rockets from Gaza at Israeli targets in the past month. One fired yesterday hit a vacant lot in the town of Sderot, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, and two others fell short of their targets and landed in a Palestinian town.
The army has, for the most part, retaliated to attacks by destroying the institutions of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, arguing that the leader failed to prevent, and even encouraged and supported, bombings and shootings of Israelis.
But now, with Arafat's police force and infrastructure in ruins and most of the Palestinian cities in the West Bank reoccupied by troops and locked under curfew, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is increasingly setting his sights on Hamas and its leaders.
"We want to arrive at a situation where the terror organizations invest more and more defending themselves," Mofaz said at the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday.
Hamas was formed in 1987 as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood by five men, including Taha; Rantisi, who is a pediatrician; and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the group's wheelchair-bound spiritual leader.
The Islamic fundamentalist organization grew into a formidable fighting and political force. Its leaders orchestrated deadly suicide bombings on Israeli buses and on streets but also established a charitable fund that is rivaled only by the United Nations Relief Works Agency in giving aid to Gaza's impoverished population.
As such, Hamas represents a serious challenge to not only Israel but also to Arafat, who has been under virtual siege in the West Bank city of Ramallah and has not visited Gaza in more than a year.
His influence is limited among the 1.2 million Palestinians there, many of whom view his Fatah faction as corrupt and inefficient.
Last month, a Hamas leader declared that the group was ready and able to take over from the Palestinian Authority and signaled that its leaders want to participate in as-yet-unscheduled elections.
Though Palestinian Authority police have faced off against Hamas militants, sometimes with deadly results, and recently tried to stop the launchings of missiles, Arafat's security forces have been unwilling to seriously confront the group and risk a possible civil war or be viewed as doing Israel's bidding.
The Israeli army also has thus far been reluctant to send in its troops to battle Hamas. While the army has killed leaders of the group's military wing during raids and in assassinations, soldiers have not chanced prolonged missions into Gaza or taken over entire cities as they have done in the West Bank.
Instead, soldiers have attacked small areas or parts of refugee camps, usually at night.
Yesterday's move on Bureij came shortly after midnight. Palestinians said Israeli undercover soldiers entered first, riding in nondescript jeeps and yellow taxis, followed by columns of tanks and armored vehicles that were confronted by masked Palestinian gunmen with assault rifles.
Among the dead were two teen-agers and a woman, Nuha Sabri Swidan al-Maqadma, who was nine months pregnant. Witnesses said al-Maqadma, 40, was inside her home and was hit by falling debris jarred loose when the army blew up the house of a suspected militant next door.
The buildings affected by the assault included a mosque that was peppered with bullets and four homes that were destroyed. More than 50 people were injured.
Paramedics said the army blocked ambulances from entering; Israeli army officials said help was delayed because of the intense fighting.
One of Taha's sons who was arrested was identified by the Israeli army as Ayman Taha, an assistant to the leader of the Hamas military wing and its top bomb-maker, Mohammed Deif, who lost an eye but narrowly survived an Israeli missile strike on his car in September.
Call for more bombs
Yesterday, thousands marched in a mass funeral procession and shouted for revenge. "More suicide bombings are the only answer," according to one chant.
But Hamas has not successfully struck inside Israel in months, though a roadside bomb it planted last month blew up a tank and killed four Israeli soldiers in Gaza. The last significant attack by any militant group inside Israel occurred Jan. 5 in a double suicide bombing by the Islamic Jihad, which killed 23 people.
Some Israeli government officials have said militant groups have quietly agreed to stop attacks, at least until after a war in Iraq, as a tactical move to avoid a large-scale confrontation with the Israeli army. But army leaders credit the slowdown to their presence in Palestinian cities.
They said over the weekend that they had thwarted Hamas attacks on several political leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's convoy and former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who is now a Cabinet minister.
Rantisi said he also rejected any talk of a slowdown, but he acknowledged that the continued Israeli army actions in the West Bank have made it difficult for suicide bombers to get into Israel.
"We have not started a new strategy," Rantisi said in a telephone interview. "I think there are some obstacles in front of the fighters. The West Bank is all under occupation and curfew. These are obstacles we will overcome in the near future."