Prominent Hamas politician is seized

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Israel has arrested a senior Hamas leader at his home in Ramallah, expanding its original front against the Palestinians in Gaza.

The Israelis may try to trade Abdel Aziz Dweik, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, for Cpl Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid by Islamic fighters on 25 June.

But Mr Dweik rejected such a deal yesterday.

The Hamas leader had known for some time that he was a marked man, and said two weeks ago that he was sleeping in a different place each night.

However, on Saturday, after at least two previous attempts to snatch him had failed, the Israeli army caught up with Mr Dweik, sending 20 army vehicles to surround his house.

Israel has stepped up its military response to the Palestinians since the armed wing of the Hamas government captured Cpl Shalit.

In addition to regular deadly raids on Gaza, where 1.4 million Palestinians are trapped by an economic blockade, the Israelis have arrested a third of the Hamas government and 36 members of the Palestinian parliament since 26 June.

The rest of the government, including the Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and the Foreign Minister, Mahmoud Zahar, are in hiding. Israeli warplanes have smashed the foreign and interior ministries in Gaza as part of incursions which have continued despite Israel's unilateral pullout from the territory last summer.

The US-educated Mr Dweik had continued to visit his office, and even made telephone calls on his mobile. He had sent his wife and family to safety in another city. "We are working against all the odds in the history of mankind, as a parliament and as a government," Mr Dweik said.

Speaking of the capture of Cpl Shalit, he suggested that the Israeli soldier was unharmed, saying: "there are rules of war in Islam - we said do not harm a prisoner of war."

The Palestinians had hoped that Israel would agree to a prisoner swap that could lead to the release of Cpl Shalit in return for thousands of Palestinians held by Israel, at a later stage.

The fate of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel has become such a burning issue for the Palestinian people that President Mahmoud Abbas endorsed a plan for a prisoner swap worked out with Egypt last month.

But Mr Dweik said that he would reject any Israeli attempt to free him instead of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Cpl Shalit.

"Neither I nor my brother MPs want to be, or would accept being alternatives to our brother prisoners. If I live the rest of my life in prison, I won't accept [being] a card in any compromise."

An Israeli army spokesman justified the arrest saying: "He is the head of Hamas's legislature and since Hamas is a terrorist organisation, he is a target for arrest."