Police on Tuesday arrested 13 leaders of Israel's Islamic Movement on charges they funneled millions of dollars to the militant Hamas group, which has carried out scores of suicide bomings.
The arrests were expected to heighten tensions between Israel's large Arab minority and the authorities, already strained since police killed 13 Arab protesters in anti-government protests in October 2000.
The Israeli police minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, alleged that the Islamic Movement "inflamed the bonfire of terrorism."
The arrests capped a two-year investigation and were carried out early Tuesday, on a Muslim holiday that marks the birthday of Prophet Muhammad. In the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm in northern Israel, dozens of police and agents of the Shin Bet security service raided the office of the Al Aqsa Association, a charity linked to the Islamic Movement, and confiscated documents, the Haaretz daily said.
The Islamic Movement, the largest Israeli Arab organization, is divided into two branches. It's so-called southern branch is considered more pragmatic and participates in Israel's political life, while the northern branch is seen as more radical and has come out in support of Hamas, a Palestinian group operating from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The leader of the northern branch, Sheik Raed Salah, was among those arrested Tuesday. The names of the other detainees were not immediately released. Police said further arrests were expected
The detainees were to be brought before a Tel Aviv court later Tuesday for a remand hearing. Police are asking to keep them in custody until the end of the investigation.
Hanegbi, the police minister, said the money sent to Hamas was collected by the Islamic Movement under the guise of charity.
The suspects "have been working consistently for years to bring in massive amounts of money for activities that ... help terror, activities of Hamas in West Bank and Gaza Strip," he told Israel Radio.
Hanegbi said it made little difference whether the money was used for buying explosives or was given to families of suicide bombers. "Terror cannot exist without a financial infrastructure," he said.
Since the current round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting began in September 2000, Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group have carried out 89 suicide bombings that have killed more than 300 Israelis.
Only one of the bombers was an Israeli Arab. However, in several of the attacks, Arab citizens of Israel provided assistance, police have said.
Arabs make up about one-sixth of Israel's 6.5 million people. The Israeli-Palestinian violence has helped radicalize some Israeli Arabs, bringing to the surface simmering resentment over what many say is systematic discrimination.