Palestinian terrorist group gets aid in U.S., Israel says Arab-American said to provide data on Hamas

February 17, 1993|By New York Times News Service

RAMALLAH — RAMALLAH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Israeli officials say an Arab-American arrested in Israel last month has provided unusually detailed information suggesting that Hamas, the Palestinian group that has attacked Israelis and Palestinians, has drawn critical financial support and political and military guidance from agents in the United States.

Security officials directly involved in the interrogation of the man, Mohammed Abdel-Hamid Salah, say he also told them that he had been sent by senior Hamas figures in London and Springfield, Va., to help rebuild Hamas, which was hobbled by Israel's deportation of more than 400 Palestinians in December.

Israel said at the time it had evidence that the deportees were linked to Hamas, though a few were later brought back to Israel because of misidentification.

The trip in January, the Israeli officials said, followed an earlier one that Mr. Salah said he had made last year on orders from a man in London whom he described as Hamas' military chief. His instructions, Mr. Salah said, were to build a military structure for Hamas for "positive works."

"It's a code term," Mr. Salah told an interrogator, according to notes of the session provided by Israelis. "Killing your enemy is positive. And on the telephone, that's how they can talk about it." Israeli officials said that based on the statements attributed to Mr. Salah, they believe he is a senior military figure in Hamas.

The reports were presented by Israeli officials in part to counter skepticism in the United States, and even in Israel, of the Israeli claim that Hamas has an important base in the United States. Israel wants Washington to step up scrutiny of Hamas contacts and to ease its criticism of Israel's crackdown on Palestinians, including the deportations.

American officials said yesterday that they remained deeply skeptical agents in the United States were somehow assisting Hamas terrorism. But they did not repeat their earlier insistence that no such operations were taking place.

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said the FBI was looking into groups that Israel had linked to Hamas. Two weeks ago, U.S. officials said they believed that support for Hamas was limited to fund-raising, but an official said yesterday that such a conclusion might be premature.

Mr. Salah, a 39-year-old used-car salesman from Bridgeview, Ill., was arrested Jan. 25 with another Arab-American from the Chicago area, Mohammed Joma Hilmi Jarad, 36, who is also suspected of aiding Hamas. Neither has been charged with a crime but both are being held in a high-security prison in Ramallah.

A third Arab-American, Mohammed Tawfik Hajjaj, 32, from Richmond, Va., was also arrested on Jan. 25 but has been freed. Israeli officials said his case was not connected to that of Mr. Jarad and Mr. Salah. Mr. Hajjaj said on Israeli television after his release that he had been beaten during his interrogation.

The government has denied that the three men were mistreated, and said Mr. Salah's description of his links to Hamas was not coerced. According to Israeli security officials, Mr. Salah has been questioned almost daily at a T-shaped Formica table in a spartan room in the Governor's Building, the high-security prison.

But Ahlam Haddad, his lawyer, says that Mr. Salah denies any involvement with Hamas and that the statements attributed to him were obtained under pressure.

"He told me he was pressured into signing a confession in Hebrew, which he does not understand," the lawyer said. She added that he had not been tortured, but had been subjected to "intense interrogation for three days and nights without sleep" and had been "questioned with his hands tied behind his back."

Mr. Jarad's attorney, Guwad Boulos, also said his client had no connection with Hamas.

In laying out what they said was evidence of an American connection to Hamas, Israeli officials said a substantial amount of money flows from the Arab and Muslim community in the United States to similar groups in the West Bank and Gaza. They acknowledged that most of this money supports community and religious activities, but said some was siphoned off to pay for violent action by Hamas.

In an interview, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin estimated that about $30 million a year in Hamas financing comes from the United States. He said that much of the money is Iranian in origin, but that U.S. banks are being used as conduits. Israeli officials said some money was simply withdrawn as cash and carried by messengers like Mr. Salah.

According to Israeli officials and to notes of the interrogations provided by them, Mr. Salah made these assertions:

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