JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli troops arrested reclusive Hamas ideologue Mohammed Taha yesterday in a deadly raid, signaling a change in Israeli strategy that until now had not targeted the Islamic militant group’s leadership.

Backed by attack helicopters and tanks, troops blew up Taha’s home and three others in the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Eight people died in the raid, and besides the 65-year-old Hamas co-founder, his five sons – all Hamas activists – were arrested.

The arrests, part of a two-week-old offensive in Gaza, marked the first attack on a Hamas leader since the latest Israel-Palestinian conflict erupted in September 2000. Israel had focused its efforts on rank-and-file militants and on the security forces of the Palestinian Authority itself.

The shift comes as Israel’s new hard-line government, sworn in last week, promised more crippling blows to militant Islamic groups and as global attention turns toward U.S. action in Iraq.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher criticized Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes.

“We’ve been very clear about our policy regarding the practice of demolitions,” he said. “Demolition of civilian structures deprives Palestinians of shelter and the ability to peacefully earn a livelihood.

“It exacerbates the humanitarian situation inside the Palestinian areas and makes more difficult the critical challenge of bringing about an end to violence and the restoration of calm.”

Palestinians see Israel’s offensive as an effort to deal Hamas a fatal blow before a U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein; afterward, Israel might be constrained by U.S. pressure to compensate the Arab world by reining in the Jewish state.

“This escalation is clearly ahead of the likely war with Iraq,” said Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. “We believe the aim of the attacks is to create conditions on the ground before the war in the region in order to destroy more of the foundations of the Palestinian Authority.”

In Israel, some predict a domino effect in which the ouster of Saddam would enable the replacement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Others dismiss that. And, officially, Israel says the looming war has nothing to do with its offensive in the crowded, impoverished seaside Gaza Strip.

“The Palestinian issue will always stand alone,” said Uzi Dayan, a retired general and former head of Israel’s National Security Council.

Still, it remained to be seen whether taking Hamas leaders out of the picture will halt terror attacks in Israel.

Advocates of the military strikes say a lull in suicide attacks – the last was Jan. 5 – is the result of Israel’s relentless military pressure. Others note that in the past, Israeli strikes against militant groups have sometimes served to end periods of relative calm.

“I have not yet seen a Hamas leader who is irreplaceable,” said Shlomo Gazit of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

And Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi warned, “Israel will pay a high price for its crimes.”

Underscoring his point – and perhaps the limited success of Israel’s military moves – Palestinians in Gaza yesterday managed to fire three homemade Qassam rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, less than a mile from the Gaza border. There were no injuries.

Since its founding in 1987, Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and suicide bombings. The group started with Mohammed Taha, spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and three other clerics. Yassin, a quadriplegic, was elected Hamas chief, while Taha and the others formed an advisory council.

The group established a structure in which the political leadership inspired but was not thought to directly control the “military wing,” which carried out attacks. Hamas’ maintained a political leadership abroad which at times was seen as taking a harder line than the Gaza-based leaders.

Taha, who has persistently declined to give interviews, fled Israel with his family in 1948 and settled in the Bureij camp. He preached at a mosque at Gaza City’s Islamic University and at his local mosque. His influence gradually spread to the West Bank.

The Israeli military says Taha orchestrated and planned dozens of attacks in which Israelis were killed.

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