The arrests began shortly after midnight on Saturday in the town of Dura, nearly 50km south of Jerusalem, where the Israeli occupation army arrested an undisclosed number of Islamist leaders.
 
Local sources in the Hebron area said the detainees included Shaikh Nayif Rajub, imam of the town's Grand Mosque, and Shaikh Fathi Amr, a high-ranking official in Hebron's Islamic endowments department.
 
Rajub's twin brother, Yasir, was also arrested. Shaikh Nayif and Yasir are both brothers of senior Palestinian Authority official Jabril Rajub.

Other figures arrested included Abd al-Jalil Katalu, a librarian; local businessman Husain Amr; and Ghassan Sharaha, a jewellery dealer.
 
All but one were undeclared candidates in the forthcoming elections for the town's municipal council.
 
Via loudspeakers

"They came around 3 o'clock", Shaikh Fathi Amr's wife said. "They started throwing large rocks at the main door and when we opened, they told us via loudspeakers they had come to arrest Fathi."

Shaikh Fathi Amr's wife told Aljazeera.net the Israeli soldiers did not vandalise their home as they usually do when raiding Palestinian homes.
 
For her part, Wafa Rajub, wife of Nayif Rajub, said she was sure the arrests were linked to the local elections in Dura, scheduled for April.
 
"They simply want to dump all popular [Islamist] candidates in jail so that only supporters of Fatah would win," she said.
 
"Why don't they say it clearly, 'Don't contend the elections or else you will be arrested', and nobody would nominate himself."

 

Palestinian Authority chief and
presidential favourite Abbas

The Israeli army denied, though, that the latest spate of arrests was aimed at preventing Hamas from making further gains in phased local elections.
 
"We arrested those people as part of our war on terror. These are not political arrests," Israeli army spokesman Eitan Arusi said.
 
He told Aljazeera.net the detainees were involved in "harmful political activities" and that the "interests of the Israeli defence forces necessitated their arrests."

Popular support
 
By contrast, Bashar al-Dik, a senior official of the Palestinian Election Committee, called the latest arrests "another clear proof that Israel is trying to corrode Palestinian democracy".
 
"It is manifestly clear that the so-called only democracy in the Middle East is enemy no 1 for democracy in Palestine. Israel is making every effort to thwart Palestinian elections by hounding, intimidating and arresting candidates," he said. 

Hamas performed well in recent
municipal polls in the West Bank

"They simply snatch people from their homes and dump them in detention camps, just like this, without charge, without trial, without nothing."
 
Incidentally, Hamas' supporters made significant gains in the local and municipal elections which took place in 26 Palestinian communities in the West Bank on 23 December, gaining full or partial control over 13 local councils and municipalities.
 
According to opinion polls, Hamas and other Islamist groups enjoy strong public support, making the movement a serious competitor for the Fatah movement, the mainstream Palestinian Liberation Organisation faction and de facto ruling party in the Palestinian Authority.
 
Serious challenge

The 26 localities where elections took place were considered traditional Fatah strongholds, so Hamas' achievements were viewed by Israel and some circles within the Palestinian Authority as a serious challenge.

Prior to the polls, the Israeli army arrested six independent Islamist candidates in the towns of Dahiriya and Jericho.
 
However, at least four of the detained candidates were elected by a large margin, prompting Israel to step up its repression.
 
Israel already detains as many as 8000 Palestinian political figures and resistance activists, 1000 of whom have been neither charged nor tried.