Hamas funds are seized

Group's spokesman caught smuggling $800,000 into Gaza Strip

May 20, 2006|By LAURA KING | LAURA KING,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- A senior Hamas official was caught yesterday trying to smuggle more than $800,000 in cash into the Gaza Strip, underscoring the desperate financial situation facing the Hamas-led government and deepening tensions between the Islamist group and the Palestinian executive branch.

Forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas confiscated 635,000 euros, or $809,000, from Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri at the Rafah border crossing from Egypt, officials from both sides said. Abu Zuhri was returning from a trip to Qatar, where he said he had been given the cash in donations.

Abbas ordered a criminal investigation of the incident, while Hamas bitterly denounced the seizure as unlawful.

Besides highlighting the combative relations between the ruling Hamas and the Fatah faction it defeated in January elections, the incident demonstrated just how cash-starved the Palestinian government is. Hamas inherited a debt of more than $1 billion and has been unable to pay government salaries for two months.

Direct international aid to the Palestinian Authority dropped off drastically after Hamas took power. The militant group has refused to bow to international demands that it recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, said the money seized yesterday was "intended to help the prisoners." The Palestinian Authority has long paid subsidies to the families of those imprisoned for anti-Israeli activity.

The Rafah crossing is staffed by European Union monitors and by Palestinian forces who answer to Abbas. Julio De La Guardia, a spokesman for the European observers, said Abu Zuhri carried the cash in a concealed belt strapped to his midsection, a violation of rules that any sum over $2,000 be declared to border officials. Abu Zuhri told reporters in Gaza that the funds were private donations received during his Qatar visit.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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