NABLUS, West Bank Israeli troops stormed the shopping mall in this West Bank city Tuesday and ordered it to close, saying the popular facility is linked to the militant Islamic group Hamas.
The overnight move was the latest in a widening crackdown on the militant Islamic group in the West Bank, even as Israel observes a cease-fire with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Israel kept a vital Gaza cargo crossing open though Palestinians fired three mortar shells at Israel on Tuesday, violating a 3-week-old truce.
Hamas condemned the Nablus operation as "provocative." Palestinian witnesses said the troops surrounded the Nablus Mall after midnight, sealing the building and posting closure orders in shop windows.
"There were dozens of soldiers, lots of jeeps," said Ali Ashur, 28, who owns a cell-phone shop. He said he rushed to the scene about 2 a.m. after a security guard alerted him to the raid.
The five-story mall is one of the most popular spots in Nablus, a city of 135,000 that serves as the West Bank's commercial center. It has about 70 shops, including clothing stores, wedding shops and a restaurant.
The order, signed by an Israeli general who oversees the West Bank, said the building will be closed on Aug. 15, giving shop owners more than a month to move their businesses.
"Anyone found in this center after Aug. 15 will be considered as working on behalf of Hamas and puts himself and his properties in danger," the order said.
However, shops were closed Tuesday to protest the Israeli order. Businesses throughout the city prepared to hold a general strike today as well.
Israeli security officials said the mall is owned by Hamas, the violent Islamic group branded a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the EU. "Profits made by stores are used to sponsor terror," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.
The listed owner of the mall is Beit al-Mal, a company whose partners include Nablus Mayor Adli Yaish, a Hamas politician who has been imprisoned by Israel.
Osman Muslah, a business partner of Yaish, said the company has many partners. "This does not belong to Hamas," he said. "We will fight this order through the law."
Tuesday's raid came a day after Israeli troops swooped down on other alleged Hamas targets in Nablus. They shut down a girls' school, a medical center and two other facilities of a Hamas-affiliated charity, witnesses said.
Computers, documents, cash and furniture were seized, they said.
The raids are part of an intensified crackdown on Hamas charities and fundraising organizations in the West Bank. In March, Israel also closed an orphanage in the city of Hebron believed to be linked to Hamas.
The raids also may be an Israeli effort to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is in a fierce rivalry with the Islamic group. Hamas violently wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' forces a year ago.
Three weeks ago, Israel and Palestinian militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza agreed to a truce. Although the cease-fire is limited to Gaza, confrontations in the West Bank have led Gaza militants to violate the agreement.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad accused Israel of making the situation more tense. "What is going on in the West Bank is undoubtedly an obvious provocative action and affects the Gaza Strip," he said.
Meanwhile, Israel Army Radio reported Tuesday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would summon his Security Cabinet Wednesday to discuss violations by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas of a two-year-old cease-fire.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted in a statement late Tuesday as saying that Israel would not tolerate such violations.
"Israel cannot accept the continuing and increasing erosion" of the truce, Barak was quoted as saying during a phone conversation Tuesday with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. The truce ended a 34-day war.
The statement listed arms supplies from Syria and demanded that the U.N. force take action to stop it.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, the Israeli military lifted a two-day curfew that confined residents of a Palestinian village to their homes.
The army imposed the curfew on Naalin Sunday after violent protests against Israel's construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank. The barrier, designed to keep Palestinian attackers out of Israel, dips into the West Bank at points and would cut through village land.
Hospital officials said two people were treated during the unrest. One man was shot in the leg and another in the stomach, they said.
Maj. Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said soldiers opened fire overnight when dozens of people staged a "violent riot," throwing rocks at soldiers.
The curfew was lifted after army commanders met with village leaders, who promised future protests would be peaceful, a military statement said. Palestinians denied they had reached an agreement with the military.