Israeli soldiers arrested 16 relatives of two Palestinians suspected in bloody terror attacks this week, and in what would be a new policy, officials Friday were considering expelling some of the men to the Gaza Strip.
Israel Radio said expulsion of the fathers and brothers reflect new harsh measures the Israeli government is considering to deter potential attackers. Israeli soldiers also destroyed the family homes of the two suspected Palestinian militants.
In a statement, the militant group Hamas threatened to launch "unique martyrdom operations," if the deportations are carried out, a reference to suicide attacks.
The two attacks, a bus ambush in the West Bank and a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, were the first fatal strikes against Israeli civilians since Israeli forces moved into seven of the eight main Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank on June 20, after back-to-back suicide bombings in Jerusalem.
A woman injured in the bus ambush near an Israeli settlement in the West Bank on Tuesday, Yocheved Ben-Hanan, 21, died in Tel Aviv hospital Thursday, police said, bringing the death toll to nine. Three bystanders, including two foreign workers, were killed in the double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
A new group affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement called Al-Nazir, "the warning" in Arabic, claimed responsibility for the Tel Aviv bombing, identifying the bombers as Mohammed Attala, 18, and Ibrahim Najie, 19, from the Balata refugee camp, next to Nablus.
Abdel Nasser Najie, a relative, said Ibrahim Najie "used to work in Israel and knew Israel very well." He said Najie left for Israel several days ago, and the family lost contact with him. He said if relatives had known he was going to carry out a suicide attack, "we would have stopped him."
Overnight, Israeli forces moved into the Askar refugee camp and the nearby village of Tel, near Nablus, the military and residents said.
In Tel, soldiers destroyed the house of Nasser Aseida, 26, a leader of the Hamas military wing who was suspected of organizing the bus ambush. Soldiers arrested his father and four brothers, and detained relatives of two other wanted Hamas leaders, who are in hiding, like Aseida.
In a similar operation in the Askar refugee camp, soldiers destroyed the house of a leader of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militia, Ali Ajouri, 23, badly damaging several nearby houses, residents said. Soldiers arrested Ajouri's father and two brothers, they said. Ajouri was not captured.
Altogether, the Israelis detained 16 men, Palestinians said. In a statement, the military said the operation was "part of the war against the terrorist infrastructure."
The Israel military has long destroyed the family homes of suicide bombers in an attempt to dissuade attackers. Expelling militants' relatives from the West Bank to Gaza would be a new step. The Gaza Strip, which has not been a source of suicide bombers in the past two years, is easier to seal off from Israel than the West Bank.
A senior Israeli official said the government was awaiting final recommendations from Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein -- expected within a few days -- on whether deporting the 16 men to Gaza was legal.
If Rubinstein approves and the Cabinet determines deportations would be an effective deterrent, the government would proceed, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Rubinstein made an initial recommendation that there were legal grounds for "selective deportation to Gaza" for those people "directly involved in supporting" the militants, the official added.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a veteran peace campaigner who supports talks with the Palestinians, said he would support the new measures if they win legal approval.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat denounced the deportation idea as a war crime and violation of the fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of civilians in war zones.
"When nations in the year 2002 decide on collective punishment, and decide to deport (families) from one place to another, this is a war crime, and we will pursue it as such," he said.
Ranya Ajouri, a relative of Ali, said Israeli soldiers ordered the families out of the three-story house without giving them a chance to put on clothes or shoes. Told about the possibility that the men would be sent to Gaza, she said, "We have no relation to Ali's activities. Everyone should be responsible for his own behavior."
While the army did not say how many people were detained in connection with the attacks, it said it had arrested 16 militants in sweeps of other villages across the West Bank on Friday for alleged "terrorist activities."
Palestinian officials say they are powerless to assume control because Israeli forces have imposed curfews in the main areas, preventing Palestinian security from operating.
On Friday, the Israeli military said it was lifting curfews in the towns of Qalqiliya and Tulkarem "until further notice," and in Jenin and Hebron during the day Friday. The Israelis have said they would ease restrictions in the Palestinian towns they control if calm is maintained.
Questions about the effectiveness of Israel's reoccupation of West Bank population centers in stopping terror attacks have begun to emerge after the two attacks in Israel this week.