JERUSALEM — Israeli authorities have broken up a major guerrilla network of Islamic militants believed to be responsible for a growing number of attacks in recent months in the occupied Gaza Strip, security officials said Wednesday.
Although the officials said they could not discuss details of the case, they disclosed that about 50 suspected guerrillas have been arrested in the Gaza Strip over the last week.
"We hit them very hard. There have been a number of arrests," one senior security official said. A large cache of arms also was found and confiscated, the official added.
Most, if not all, of the detainees are believed to be members of the Islamic Jihad, a group of Muslim fundamentalists that over the last year has emerged as a significant influence among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and, to a lesser extent, the occupied West Bank.
The group is not believed to have ties with other terrorist organizations of the same name operating in Lebanon and Egypt. However, it shares their militant Islamic ideology and represents what Israeli military officials have described as a frightening new trend in occupied territories--the fusion of Palestinian nationalism with Muslim fundamentalism.
While the Islamic trend is not yet as strong in the occupied territories as it is in other parts of the Arab world, it is working a subtle but significant change in the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict here.
"The religious awakening of the Arabs in the territories is very threatening," Gen. Amram Mitzna, commander of the Israeli army's central command, warned recently. "If there is something which should bother us in the future, it is a religious awakening, which has begun in the Gaza area and which is growing and liable to intensify."
Security sources said the latest arrests were the result of investigations launched after a Gaza shoot-out last week in which four Jihad members and one member of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, were killed.
"The arrests over the past week are directly related to the shooting," a senior security official said.
The shooting also ignited a week of demonstrations and bloody confrontations between police and Palestinian youths in Gaza, the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem that have sharply increased Arab-Israeli tensions on the eve of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
The violence continued Wednesday, with Arab youths hurling stones at Israeli troops in East Jerusalem and soldiers firing tear gas to break up a demonstration by several dozen schoolgirls in the West Bank town of Ramallah, witnesses said.
Troops also used tear gas to disperse demonstrators in Anabata, a village north of Jerusalem, where they detained about 25 youths, other witnesses said.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was quoted Wednesday as saying that the violence over the past week may have been instigated by the Palestine Liberation Organization in order to demonstrate the strength of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation in advance of Shultz's visit. Shultz arrives in Israel on Friday.
"Part of the disturbances," Rabin told Israeli reporters, may be "connected to attempts from abroad to create an atmosphere here of unrest in expectation of Shultz's visit."
Local Palestinian leaders disputed this assessment, however, saying that the unrest was ignited by the shooting of the four Jihad members last week and fueled by the "iron fist" tactics employed by soldiers and police in breaking up subsequent demonstrations.
A number of demonstrators and bystanders have been shot over the past week by security forces using live ammunition against groups of rock-throwing youths. The casualties have included a Palestinian mother of five who was shot and killed in Ramallah on Monday.
Ramallah has been the scene of tension since Saturday, when Israeli troops shot and killed an 11-year-old girl and injured seven other Arabs in clashes with demonstrators protesting the Gaza killings.
Demonstrations, shootings and attacks by stone-throwing youths are common in the territories, but even by these standards of continual violence, the latest wave of unrest has been unusual. That it may have begun as a protest over the deaths of four Jihad members also may be an indication of the extent to which Islamic sentiment has permeated the Palestinian resistance in the territories, analysts said.
In its Gaza incarnation, Islamic Jihad first surfaced a year ago, when it claimed responsibility for a grenade attack on a group of Israeli soldiers in East Jerusalem. Since then, its members have carried out a number of attacks and acts of sabotage and are believed to have been responsible for the murders of at least two Jews stabbed to death in the Gaza Strip last year.
Ties to Fatah