Israeli troops seize senior West Bank lawmaker in latest Hamas roundup

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Israeli forces seized a senior Palestinian legislator Sunday in the latest move in a 7-week-old crackdown on the ruling Hamas movement, drawing angry accusations from Palestinian leaders that Israel is undermining their efforts to form a unity government.

Troops and agents of the Shin Bet intelligence agency grabbed Mahmoud al-Ramahi, a senior Hamas member and secretary-general of the Palestinian parliament, at his Ramallah home, a military statement said. It gave no further details, but his sister Yaqeen said the raid took place in broad daylight.

His capture puts almost all of Hamas' West Bank leadership in Israeli custody.

Al-Ramahi had evaded capture since the crackdown on Hamas began after the June 25 abduction of an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid by Hamas-linked militants from Gaza. Two weeks later by Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers on Israel's northern border, prompting a 34-day conflict with the Jewish state.

A physician by training, al-Ramahi is the fourth-ranking member of the parliament, dealing with administrative and procedural affairs.

On Saturday, soldiers swooped in on Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer at a home where he had been hiding, also in Ramallah. Shaer was the most senior Hamas official to be detained.

Israel now is holding five Cabinet ministers and more than two dozen lawmakers. Four other Cabinet ministers were rounded up but have been released.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the continued detention of government members and lawmakers is "putting obstacles" in the way of reaching a national consensus and unity government.

"There is a Palestinian consensus that it is difficult to move while the ministers and parliamentarians are in jail," he said.

Haniyeh previously has said he wants all political leaders released by Israel before forming a broad coalition government.

Members of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement also have accused Israel of undermining efforts to form a unity government.

Abbas believes that forming a coalition will force Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction, to moderate its stance and help open the way to renewed peace talks. Hamas has so far refused international calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel, despite a crippling economic boycott.

Israel says its roundup of Hamas officials is a legitimate act against a terrorist group.

"The measures Israel is taking in the territories, including this arrest, have everything to do with security considerations and for the active prevention of terror, " said David Baker, an official in the prime minister's office.

Despite Israel's crackdown on Hamas political leaders, and a large offensive in the Gaza Strip, the captured Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, has not been released. The militants holding him have demanded a wide-scale release of Palestinian prisoners -- a demand Israel has rejected.

Speaking to reporters in Ramallah after meeting Abbas Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul called for Shalit and the imprisoned Hamas officials to be freed as a prelude to restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

"It is time to resume negotiations' Gul said. "The key is the release of the kidnapped soldier, and the release of the elected lawmakers so we can go back to the negotiating table."

The Israeli military said Sunday that, to improve the lot of Palestinians in the West Bank, it was easing restrictions imposed in recent months as Israel battled Palestinian militants in Gaza and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. The statement said 26,500 Palestinian workers and traders would be allowed to enter Israel and another 1,500 West Bank residents would be allowed to work in the Atarot industrial park on the edge of traditionally Arab east Jerusalem.

Before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict re-erupted six years ago, around 80,000 Palestinians worked in Israel.