As Israel enters the final stretch of an election campaign dominated by the security issue, Israeli security officials and terror experts have thrown a sharp spotlight on the terrorist activities of Hamas and Iran.
Over the weekend, security officials said they had thwarted a Hamas terror attack after they captured the No. 2 man in the Hamas military wing.
The announcement came after Israeli soldiers shot and wounded Hassan Salameh during a pursuit last Friday night in the West Bank town of Hebron.
A second suspected terrorist traveling with Salameh was also arrested.
The second man, identifies as Rizzek Rajoub, was said to be a relative of Jibril Rajoub, who is in charge of all Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.
The soldiers found firearms, grenades and ammunition in car, prompting security sources to suggest that the two could have been on their way to carry out a terror attack.
The Israel Defense Force said Salameh has masterminded the Feb. 25 Hamas suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Ashkelon, as well as the March 3 bombing in Jerusalem. The three attacks claimed the lives of 46 victims and wounded scores more.
According to the army, soldiers from the Golani Brigade stopped Salameh in his car at a Hebron roadblock.
He got out and fled as they approached the car. When he ignored their calls to stop, the soldiers opened fire, hitting him in the back.
Salameh was later tracked to a Hebron hospital, from which he was transferred to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
Israeli security officials subsequently arrested eight other Palestinians on suspicion of aiding the senior Islamic militant.
On Saturday, Israeli soldiers patrolled the Hebron market in an effort to prevent violent protests against Salameh’s arrest.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres called his capture a “first-rate achievement,” adding that it has likely to thwart future attacks on Israelis.
Some commentators noted that the arrest could give Peres a boost in his effort to win the May 29 race for prime minister.
Likud officials said Salameh’s arrest underscored the failure of Peres’ peace policies.
Had Israeli troops already redeployed in Hebron, they argued, Salameh would still be at large.
The redeployment, postponed from late March after the Human suicide attacks, is now scheduled to take place after the May 29 elections.
After Salameh’s arrest, Hamas officials issued a statement vowing to avenge his capture with terrorist attacks.
The statement also rejected the remarks last Friday of a Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip calling on the military arm of Hamas to refrain from terrorist attacks before Israel’s elections.
Hamas political leader Mohammed Zahar told a rally of 3,000 supporters in Gaza City that those attacks were being ordered from abroad.
He called for a suspension of the attacks “so we don’t present a false image to the world that Hamas is serving and Arab government of radical administration.”
His remarks came after leaflets were distributed last Friday indicating that the Hamas armed wing was ready to suspend its attacks if all Hamas prisoners were released from Palestinian Jails.
The contradictory statements made by Hamas officials over the weekend led to some speculation that there were rifts within the fundamentalist organization.
Israeli officials and terror experts meanwhile charged that Iran has decided to sent its own operatives into Israel to carry out terrorist attacks.
They said Iran adopted the new approach amid sings that Hamas operatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were growing increasingly cooperative with the Palestinian Authority.
Iran has reportedly sent dozens of agents to the Palestinian self-rule areas to set up a rival group to the Hamas military wing.
Palestinian security officials recently said they has arrested some 70 members of that group.
Israeli officials, backing up their charges of direct Iranian involvement in terror attacks against Israel, pointed to the case of Hussein Mikdad, which was made public last week.
Mikdad, a Lebanese national, lost both legs and an arm when plastic explosives he was preparing exploded prematurely last month at an eastern Jerusalem hotel.
According to police, Mikdad has planned to blow up an El Al flight with plastic explosives in a clock radio.
They said that Mikdad, a member of Hezsbollah, had repeatedly been spotted visiting the Iranian embassy in Beirut.
Mikdad was believed to the first operative ever sent by Iran to carry out an attack within Israel instead of targeting Israelis or Jews elsewhere around the world.