Saudis shown to aid terror, Israel alleges

Arab documents seized in West Bank, Israel says

Released on eve of Sharon visit

Disclosure may be effort to spoil U.S.-Saudi ties

May 07, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - At the start of a crucial week in Middle East diplomacy, Israel mounted a challenge yesterday to the growing cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia, releasing papers that it said documented a flow of Saudi money to Palestinian terrorists and their families.

The documents, seized from Palestinian Authority offices and from mosques during Israel's military offensive in the West Bank, show that Saudi money was sent to Hamas, which is on a U.S. list of terrorist groups, and to Palestinian charities with close ties to Hamas, Israeli officials said.

The Saudis "have to make up their minds," said Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat. "If Saudi policy is to finance suicide bombers, then they probably cannot be part of the peace coalition."

The documents were released one day before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is to meet with President Bush at the White House and as the U.S. administration tries to build momentum for a renewed Middle East peace process.

The disclosure, which could complicate the peace effort, appears to be part of a broad Israeli effort to influence the Bush administration's next moves.

Israel has tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the Bush administration that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should be frozen out of any new negotiations. Sharon is likely to renew this pitch to Bush today.

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, denounced Israeli allegations that his government was connected to the financing of terrorism as "baseless and false."

"The Israelis, it appears, have not come to Washington to talk about peace, but rather to undermine those who want peace negotiations," Prince Bandar said in a statement.

The Bush administration has been collaborating with the Saudi leadership since Bush met last month at his Texas ranch with Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. The prince is the author of a plan, endorsed by the 22-member Arab League, that calls for Arab states to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for withdrawal from land Israel has occupied since the 1967 war.

Together, the United States and Saudi Arabia brokered a deal nine days ago that produced Arafat's release from Israeli confinement at his headquarters in Ramallah. The effort marked a revival of the kind of working relationship the first Bush administration had forged with the Saudis at the time of the Persian Gulf war.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday at about the same time that the Israelis were releasing the documents at a news conference.

Israeli officials say that in the past 16 months, the Saudis have sent $135 million to Palestinian organizations and individuals, including some involved in or connected to terrorism, such as Hamas and a group called the Tulkarm Charity Committee, which Israel said is identified with Hamas.

Several suicide bombers have come from Tulkarm, a West Bank town on the pre-1967 border with Israel, or from nearby communities. The documents include the names of reported recipients, including the families of suicide bombers and of well-known Palestinian militants killed by Israeli troops.

Among the Saudi institutions involved in transferring the funds was the Saudi Arabian Committee for the Support of the Intifada al Quds, led by the interior minister, Prince Naif bin Abdel Aziz, the documents say.

The Saudis tried to keep their role quiet, said Col. Miriam Eisen, an Israeli military intelligence officer. In one captured document, the Saudi committee chastised a Palestinian group that had publicized Saudi support for families of those killed in the conflict.

The documents include a chart that Israeli officials say reflected payments to families of Palestinians, including eight people mentioned as having been killed in suicide operations and 28 other militants.

Other documents show that the Palestinian Authority tried to persuade the Saudi government not to send money to radical Islamic groups but to instead move it through the authority, headed by Arafat. Despite this plea, the Saudis continued to bypass the Palestinian Authority, Israeli officials said.

The CIA, which has analyzed other documents seized during the Israeli incursions, did not see the latest batch before it was released to the news media, a U.S. official said.

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said his agency had not examined the documents. But U.S. officials have spoken privately with Saudi officials about allegations of Saudi involvement in funding groups associated with terrorists.

"Just last week, we've been talking to the Saudis, and they have said quite clearly that their intention is to make sure that their money goes only to the United Nations, to the Red Cross and other legitimate charitable activities," Boucher said.

Prince Bandar said in his statement that the kingdom had "repeatedly and unequivocally condemned terrorism."

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