Israel arrests pair in Gaza


JERUSALEM -- Israeli commandos seized two Palestinians suspected of being Hamas militants during a predawn operation yesterday that was the army's first arrest raid in the Gaza Strip since Israel's withdrawal nearly a year ago.

The arrests represented a new front in Israel's battle against Gaza militants, a cross-border campaign dominated by artillery fire and airstrikes targeting fighters who launch homemade Kassam rockets into southern Israel.

But those methods have proved especially problematic in the wake of air attacks that have killed 14 civilians in Gaza during the past two weeks. Israel has not resumed its shelling since an explosion killed eight Palestinian civilians on a beach in the northern Gaza Strip. The military says an internal investigation shows that it was not responsible for the June 9 blast, although skeptical human rights groups have called for an independent investigation.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said the two men, arrested from a house near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, were in the "final stages of planning a large-scale terror attack" in coming days. The army did not provide details.

Hamas denied that the men are members. They were identified by neighbors as brothers Osama Muamar, 31, a medical student who returned from Sudan last week, and Mustafa, a 20-year-old university student in Gaza.

Since pulling out of the Gaza Strip in September after a 38-year presence, Israeli troops on occasion have moved a short distance inside the border fence to clear away mines laid by Palestinian fighters.

Last month, Israeli forces staged their first major incursion when special forces acted against a Palestinian rocket squad in the northern end of the strip. Three members of Islamic Jihad and a fourth man, a member of the Palestinian security forces, were killed during the ambush.

In other developments yesterday, the ruling Hamas and rival Fatah movement continued talks over a proposal for a shared political program aimed at ending factional clashes.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah member, met in Gaza City with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a member of Hamas, in an attempt to iron out lingering differences over the proposed program, based on a document drawn up by prominent Palestinians jailed in Israel. That document, calling for a Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders, implicitly would recognize Israel. Hamas rejects Israel's right to exist.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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