Israel says Hamas planned to assassinate foreign minister Lieberman in West Bank

Israeli Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman responds to journalist questions during a joint press conference with new High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini (left) in a hotel, downtow
Israeli Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman responds to journalist questions during a joint press conference with new High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini (left) in a hotel, downtown of Jerusalem on Nov 7, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has arrested four Palestinians suspected of planning to kill Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with an anti-tank rocket while he drove to his Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, Israeli officials say.

The alleged Hamas plot was hatched during the July-August war in Gaza. Its disclosure comes as ties fray between Israel and US-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank, over a contested Jerusalem shrine.

A statement by Israel's domestic intelligence service Shin Bet identified three of the detainees as Hamas members and, citing their confessions under interrogation, said they had hoped killing Lieberman "would relay a message to the State of Israel that would bring about an end to the Gaza war".

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip although it is formally under Abbas' rule, neither confirmed nor denied the allegations. "We have no information about this issue. However, we stress that leaders of the Occupation (Israel) who are responsible for the killing of children and women and for defiling the sacred sites are legitimate targets for the resistance," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

The four Palestinians live near Nokdim settlement, where Lieberman has a home. They had carried out surveillance on the far-right diplomat's convoy and tried to obtain a rocket-propelled grenade to attack it, the Shin Bet said.

The Shin Bet described the alleged plot as a sign that Islamist Hamas, which Abbas's forces had suppressed in the West Bank after a 2007 Palestinian civil war, were stepping up their activities in the territory and adjoining East Jerusalem.

Hamas militants abducted and killed three Israeli youths in the West Bank in June, triggering the murder by Jews of a Palestinian teenager from Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards, Israel launched a 50-day offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip with the stated aim of stopping rocket fire out of the enclave.

Israeli access to Jerusalem's most sacred compound, which houses Islam's third-holiest mosque and where Biblical Jewish Temples once stood, has further inflamed Palestinians, leading to lethal attacks on Jews in city streets and in a synagogue this week.

Israel's talks with Abbas on founding a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem collapsed in April and it has accused him of inciting violence since. This is disputed, however, by security officials, who credit Abbas's forces with curbing many West Bank threats.