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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israeli Forces Seize Hamas Leaders

NABLUS, West Bank -- Israeli troops arrested more than 30 senior Hamas members early Thursday, including a Cabinet minister, legislators and mayors, pressing forward with an offensive against the Islamic militant group.

The roundup came hours after Israeli planes struck what the military said were money changing offices and other businesses in Gaza used to channel funds to Hamas, after more than a week in retaliation for repeated rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli border towns.

The Israeli army said it arrested 33 Hamas leaders in its overnight sweep. The most prominent official taken in the roundup was Education Minister Nasser Shaer, considered a pragmatist in the movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the arrests were a blow to peace efforts, and a spokesman for Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, called for the immediate release of the detainees and called on the United Nations and European Union to impose sanctions on Israel.

"These aggressive practices show the extent of the Israeli escalation and arrogance in the Palestinian territories, and also show how dismissive the Israeli government is of all customs and international laws," spokesman Ghazi Hamad said.

Abbas, a moderate from the Fatah party, has been meeting with Haniyeh in Gaza this week in an effort to reduce tensions with Israel.

Thursday's raid was the second major crackdown on Hamas in the past year. Israel rounded up dozens of Hamas officials, including three Cabinet ministers, last June after Palestinian militants tunneled into Israel from Gaza and captured an Israeli soldier.

Some 40 Hamas lawmakers arrested last summer -- nearly one-third of the Palestinian legislature -- are still behind bars. The soldier whose capture sparked the crackdown remains in captivity.

Last year's swoop paralyzed the Palestinian parliament, but detained Cabinet ministers were quickly replaced.

Among those rounded up Thursday were former Cabinet minister Abdel Rahman Zeidan, legislators Hamed Bitawi and Daoud Abu Ser, the mayors of the towns of Nablus, Qalqiliya and Beita, and the head of the main Islamic charity in Nablus, Fayad al-Arba.

Until Thursday, Israel's crackdown on Hamas had been largely focused on the group's Gaza Strip stronghold. Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 40 Palestinians in Gaza over the past week.

Visiting EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana met Abbas in Gaza Thursday and called for Palestinians and Israelis to stop the violence.

"The rockets and the Israeli response have to stop," he told reporters after the meeting.

Abbas himself condemned what he called the "absurd" rocket fire and said he was trying to persuade militant groups to stop. "They must stop so we can reach a truce with Israel," he said.

The Abbas-Haniyeh meeting ended with the two sides agreeing their factions would meet again.

"We are working to recommit to the truce," an Abbas aide said.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that in the fight to neutralize Hamas, arrests were preferable to bloodshed.

"Arrests are better than shooting, " he told Israeli Army Radio. "The arrest of these Hamas leaders sends a message to the military organizations that we demand that this firing [of rockets] stop."