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Last Updated:  Monday, 3 March, 2003, 14:18 GMT
Israel captures Hamas founder
Palestinian gunman, Khan Yunis refugee camp
Israeli troops met strong resistance
Israeli troops have captured a founder member of the Islamic militant group Hamas during an incursion into the Gaza Strip.

Sheikh Mohammed Taha is reported to be the first senior Hamas political leader to be arrested since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

Eight Palestinians were reported to have been killed, including a pregnant woman and a child, when Israeli tanks, backed by helicopters, entered the camp at Bureij, in central Gaza.

The soldiers crept into our house without anyone knowing... they beat my father and took him into custody as he fainted
Mohammed Taha's son, Hassan
Monday's raid followed a pledge by Israel's defence minister that he would intensify pressure on Hamas, which has carried out numerous suicide bombings against Israelis.

Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi said Mohammed Taha's arrest was a big loss to the group, the Associated Press reported.

"But this does not mean that Hamas is going to stop resistance. Israel will pay a high price for all its crimes," he was quoted as saying.

The Palestinian Authority called on the United States to condemn the Israeli operation in Gaza.

Houses demolished

After the incursion, Palestinian militants fired a rocket from Gaza into the Israeli town of Sderot, Israeli police said. No one was injured in the attack.

Monday's raid was the second in as many days.

Mahmoud el Makadma, whose pregnant wife was killed during the incursion
Mahmoud el-Makadma's pregnant wife died in the raid

About 40 Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles, backing up infantry units, met strong resistance as they moved into the area.

The operation centred around Mohammed Taha's home.

"The soldiers crept into our house without anyone knowing. They beat my father and took him into custody as he fainted," his son Hassan told Reuters news agency.

Mohammed Taha's five sons - all said to be senior Hamas militants - were also arrested.

The Israeli army said Taha and several of his sons were involved in directing attacks on Israelis, Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper reported on its website.

In the Gaza Strip, we are going to intensify the pressure on Hamas... and we are going to do the same thing in the West Bank
Shaul Mofaz
Israeli Defence Minister

The Israeli army also said it had demolished four houses belonging to militants during the operation.

One of those who died was a pregnant woman who was buried under the rubble when her house was demolished, Palestinian medics said.

Clashes were also reported in the nearby Nusseirat refugee camp.

Palestinian sources said at least two of the dead were civilians, including a 13-year-old boy.

Thirty-five Palestinians are reported to have been wounded in Monday's raid.

Israeli warning

Israel has launched a series of raids into Gaza since a bomb planted by the Islamic group Hamas killed four Israeli tank crewmen there a fortnight ago.

Gaza Strip

Sunday's incursion came after Israeli soldiers discovered and safely detonated a large roadside bomb, weighing over 100 kilograms (220 pounds), in the Khan Younis area.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz had pledged on Sunday that the raids would continue.

"In the Gaza Strip, we are going to intensify the pressure on Hamas, as we have done in the past weeks, and we are going to do the same thing in the West Bank."

During the 29-month-long Palestinian uprising, Israel has frequently targeted the family homes of militants in an attempt to discourage attacks on its citizens.

Palestinians condemn the measure as collective punishment.

More than 1,800 Palestinians and more than 700 Israelis have been killed since the present intifada erupted in September 2000.

The BBC's Matt Prodger
"Electoral victory has a bitter aftertaste"

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