The West Bank commander of the Hamas military wing surrendered to Israeli troops yesterday after they ringed his hideout and threatened to demolish it with him inside.
The fugitive, Ibrahim Hamed, emerged from the building before dawn and soldiers told him over a loudspeaker to strip to his underwear, witnesses said.
Hamed complied, was cuffed and taken to a nearby building.
Army officials said that Hamed was armed and alone at the time of his capture.
The army said that Hamed, 41, masterminded attacks that killed 78 Israelis and wounded hundreds.
Hamed has been on Israel's wanted list since 1998, frequently evading capture.
Hamed, a university graduate and influential leader, became the West Bank's commander of Izzedine al-Qassam -- the Hamas military wing -- in December 2003.
Early morning raid
Before dawn yesterday, a dozen jeeps and two armored personnel carriers surrounded his hideout, an apartment building in downtown Ramallah, just 200m from the home of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Area resident Mohammed Azzam, 48, said he watched the arrest from his balcony facing the two-story building where Hamed was holed up. The ground floor of the hideout consisted of shops with large iron doors. Two apartments were on the floor above.
Azzam said that at the start of the operation, an army bulldozer rammed the iron shop door. Over loudspeaker, troops then called out Hamed's name in accent-free Arabic. They told Hamed they would demolish the building with him inside if he didn't surrender, Azzam said.
Hamed emerged, wearing a light-colored shirt and gray pants.
Following instructions over the loudspeaker, he took off his shirt and pants, then walked toward the soldiers in his underwear. Palestinian militants surrendering to troops are routinely asked to strip to make sure they don't carry explosives.
After the arrest, soldiers entered the building and blew out the doors and windows in the two apartments, as a robot searched for explosives. Troops removed clothes from the building.
The two apartments were sparsely furnished with bamboo chairs and mattresses. A reporter touring the hideout saw two copies of Newsweek magazine on the floor.
The Israeli army said Hamed "masterminded some of the most deadly terror attacks against Israel in recent years," including suicide bombings at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an outdoor cafe in Jerusalem and a pool hall in central Israel.
Hamas has observed an informal truce with Israel since February last year.
An Israeli army colonel who led the capture said Hamas would have trouble replacing Hamed.
"What made him special was his creativity in finding very complex ways to attack Israelis," the colonel, who was only identified by his first name, Amir, told Israel Army Radio.
Hamed's nephew, Ayman, said his uncle has been wanted by Israel since 1998. For some time, he was held in a Palestinian jail for involvement in the Hamas military wing, but was released in 2002, during a major Israeli military offensive in the West Bank.
Hamed graduated from the West Bank's Bir Zeit University in 1993, with degrees in history and political science, the nephew said.
Hamed grew up in the West Bank village of Silwad, and belongs to the same clan as Khaled Mashaal, the top Hamas leader based in Damascus.