Unorthodox but essential

March 02, 2004

ISRAEL STRUCK a potentially damaging blow to the financing network of Palestinian militants last week with raids on banks in the occupied territories. Its actions may have been unorthodox -- Israeli intelligence officers who carried out the raids rode into the West Bank city of Ramallah in armored personnel carriers with gun-toting escorts. But Israel's seizure of about $9 million in suspect funds may do more to deter future suicide attacks than its targeted assassinations or controversial security barrier.

And while Palestinian militants don't lack for recruits in executing their deadly plots, cutting off their finances is essential to crushing the terror network -- and saving lives on both sides of this dispute.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon drew sharp criticism from the State Department for the raids, but the United States is pursuing the same money trail in its war on terrorism. That said, any unilateral action by Israel undermines chances for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Would we have preferred to see Palestinian officials hit militants where it will hurt? Yes -- the 42 Palestinians injured in the raids may have been spared. But the prospects of decisive Palestinian action to thwart terror seem hopeless in the current climate.

If Israeli intelligence proves correct and the millions in cash are traced to terrorist organizations, it will reinforce the importance of investigating terrorist finance networks internationally. These transactions have a global reach, often beginning in one country and ending somewhere else. The tragic events of Sept. 11 showed us that. But seizing terrorist assets requires cooperation on many fronts and by many partners, from governments to banking institutions to charitable givers. It demands diligence, a long view of what constitutes success and accurate intelligence.

Israel has been in the anti-terror business for some time and presumably knows the value of following the money over the long term. The Israeli bank operation so far has yielded not only the suspect cash but the alleged going rates for carrying out a terrorist attack -- estimates range from about $650 to $10,000. It identified individuals and charitable associations suspected in illegal arms purchases, gun smuggling and sponsorship of suicide bombings.

The raids reinforce the importance of dismantling Palestinian militant groups and the deceptively benign organizations and individuals that support them.

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