Palestinian police have arrested some 30 Hamas activists in the southern Gaza Strip, according to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
Arafat announced the arrests after a meeting Tuesday with Israeli Tourism Minister Uzi Baram in Gaza.
Palestinian officials said one of those arrested in the overnight sweep was just hours away from leaving for a suicide bombing mission in Tel Aviv.
“He has explosives and had shaved his beard,” PLO official Sufayn Abu Zaide told Israel Television, adding that the Hamas member had “arranged to travel to the central bus station in Tel Aviv.”
“He planned to blow himself up there at 3 a.m.” on Tuesday, Zaide added.
The arrests, which resulted in part from intelligence information provided by Israel, came as Palestinian security officials were searching for Yehiya Ayash, according to Israeli sources.
Ayash, known as “The Engineer” for his expertise with explosives, is a Hamas militant believed to be the mastermind behind several suicide bombings in Israel perpetrated by Hamas.
Israel Radio quoted a Palestinian police source as saying the search for Ayash continues.
The announcement of the arrests by the Palestinian police came days after Israeli security officials disclosed that they had infiltrated Hamas cells in the West Bank and had arrested dozens of Hamas operatives there and in eastern Jerusalem.
The arrests were described by Israeli officials as dealing a severe blow to Hamas’ terror operations against Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Meanwhile, Israel on Tuesday eased the closure it had imposed last week on the self-rule enclave of Jericho in the West Bank, allowing women, children and men older than 35 to leave.
The partial lifting of the closure came after hundreds of Jericho residents rioted Monday at an army roadblock at one of the entrances to the city.
Demonstrators burned an Israeli flag and hurled stones at Israeli border police, injuring three of them.
Israeli sealed off Jericho from the rest of the West Bank on Aug. 23, after Palestinian officials arrested two members of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement who had fled there. They were believed to have helped plan the Aug. 21 suicide bombing of a bus in Jerusalem.
Israeli security sources said Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had imposed the closure to pressure the Palestinian Authority to hand over the two Hamas members, who were tried and sentenced to jail terms by a Palestinian military court in Gaza.
But by Sunday, some Cabinet members, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, conceded that the Palestinian Authority was not obligated to surrender them under the terms of the self-rule accord.
Relatedly, U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross held separate talks Tuesday with Peres and Arafat in an effort to achieve progress in the ongoing Israeli- Palestinian negotiations for extending self-rule in the West Bank.
Both Ross and Peres predicted that the completed accord would be signed in Washington in mid-September.
Ross also said the Clinton administration is planning two major conferences to help raise $100 million in aid for the Palestinian Authority, according to Israeli Radio.