IDF arrests key Hamas elections official in the West Bank
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IDF arrests key Hamas elections official in the West Bank

Islamist terror group accuses Israel of meddling in Palestinian politics, a day after top Gaza official said vote could be postponed

Palestinian students who support the Hamas movement take part in an election campaign rally for the student council at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 26, 2016 (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian students who support the Hamas movement take part in an election campaign rally for the student council at Birzeit University, near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 26, 2016 (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Security forces arrested a top West Bank Hamas official overnight Tuesday, drawing accusations from the Gaza-based terror group that Israel is meddling in the upcoming Palestinian municipal elections.

Hussein Abu Kweik was arrested at his home in the el-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, the Shin Bet security agency said in a statement.

Abu Kweik is Hamas’s main West Bank campaigner in the elections, which are slated for October 8. Last week, he was appointed Hamas’s only representative to the PA’s central elections commission, which is overseeing the elections.

He was arrested in a joint operation by the IDF and Shin Bet “for his involvement in security-related activities that presented a threat to security in the area,” the Shin Bet said.

Specifically, Abu Kweik is suspected of “incitement,” the security service said. However, additional allegations may be brought against the senior Hamas official following his interrogation, it added.

In recent days Abu Kweik has boasted that his group is the “spearhead of the resistance” against Israel, Israel Radio reported.

In the same operation, Israeli forces arrested a number of other suspected Hamas members from villages and cities around the West Bank, the IDF said.

Two were arrested along with Abu Kweik in el-Amari. In Beitunia, one alleged member of the terrorist group was picked up, along with one in Dayr Samet, southwest of Hebron, and another in Surif, west of Efrat.

Three more suspected Hamas members were arrested by IDF troops in Hebron, the army said.

A pistol uncovered by IDF troops during a night-time raid near Hebron on August 17, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A pistol uncovered by IDF troops during a night-time raid near Hebron on August 17, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

In addition to the alleged members of the terrorist organization, 12 Palestinians were arrested in the West Bank overnight Tuesday, five of them for throwing rocks and taking part in violent protests, the army said.

During nighttime raids in the Hebron area, Israeli forces also found military equipment, bullets and two handguns — one in the al-Fawar refugee camp and the second in Halhul — the army said.

Hamas’s Gaza leadership decried Abu Kweik’s arrest Wednesday, with spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri calling it an Israeli attempt to intervene in the elections.

Hamas has already accused PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party of arresting Hamas activists in a bid to influence the results of the elections.

File: Mahmoud al-Zahar speaks at a Hamas rally in Gaza on December 14, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)
File: Mahmoud al-Zahar speaks at a Hamas rally in Gaza on December 14, 2015 (YouTube screenshot)

On Monday night, senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told al-Jazeera that Hamas has many “comments about Fatah due to the continual arrests of [its] leaders in the West Bank.”

The group is considering boycotting the municipal elections if the Palestinian Authority does not cease arresting its members, he said.

“The elections cannot take place if this issue continues,” al-Zahar insisted.

Since Hamas — considered a terror group by Israel and most Western governments — surprisingly agreed to participate in the municipal elections, it has been complaining that its activists in the West Bank are being rounded up by PA security forces.

Fatah has made the same complaint about its representatives being arrested in the Gaza Strip.

Al-Zahar also hinted for the first time that Fatah is considering delaying the elections.

“There are conflicts within Fatah preventing it until now from forming lists. They cannot overcome their internal differences and are shooting at each other,” he said. “There are a lot of leaks from within the government talking about the possibility of postponing the elections.”

Hamas could boycott elections

Meanwhile, Hamas has threatened to boycott the elections, with sources close to the group telling the London-based Arabic newspaper Rai Alyoum that the threat “is real.”

According to the sources, Hamas members in Gaza and the West Bank had vowed not to allow any “political maneuvering” by Fatah before agreeing to participate in the elections.

Palestinian demonstrators hold Fatah party flags as they demonstrate in the center of the West Bank city of Hebron on November 4, 2015. (AFP/HAZEM BADER)
Palestinian demonstrators hold Fatah party flags as they demonstrate in the center of the West Bank city of Hebron on November 4, 2015. (AFP/HAZEM BADER)

The sources also said Hamas was particularly aggravated by the recent arrest of Nader Sawafta, a West Bank leader in the organization who also works as a supervisor for the elections and selects the Islamist group’s candidates.

Hamas reportedly relayed its frustration to the PA over the arrest of Sawafta.

According to local opinion polls and political experts, Hamas — which has been enjoying unusual popularity in the West Bank and maintains a strong base of support in Gaza — is expected to make significant gains in the elections.

On Tuesday night, Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman, sought to quell concerns raised by al-Zahar’s comments, saying in a statement on Hamas’s official website that media should “take caution and only take positions of the movement from its official website or directly from its spokespeople.”

“No statement was published in any media outlet that Hamas is considering withdrawing from the election, and these media leaks are the opposite of Hamas’s position, which is sticking to holding elections,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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