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Hamas official caught smuggling in cash

Published May 20, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - A senior Hamas official on Friday tried to sneak $817,000 into the Gaza Strip in a pouch under his shirt, the first major cash smuggling attempt by an increasingly desperate Hamas government choked by Western sanctions.

Palestinian security forces confiscated the money at the Egypt-Gaza border, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - Hamas' main political rival - ordered a criminal inquiry. Abbas' decision was bound to raise tensions already high after police loyal to Abbas and a new Hamas militia exchanged fire earlier Friday.

Abbas sent the money to the Palestinian attorney general, with the request to open an investigation, said Saeb Erekat, an Abbas adviser.

Hamas demanded that the money - all in 500-euro bills - be returned, saying donors abroad intended it for Gaza's poor. The official carrying the money "resorted to this way ... when all other ways were blocked," government official Ghazi Hamad said.

"This money is donated from abroad, it was meant for poor people," Hamad said.

Hamas has been unable to bring in tens of millions in aid from Arab and Muslim countries because Arab banks, afraid to run afoul of U.S. antiterrorism legislation, refuse to transfer the money. The West froze vital aid to the Palestinian Authority when Hamas, viewed by Washington as a terror organization, came to power in March. The new government has been unable to pay 165,000 civil servants, whose income feeds one-third of the Palestinians.

Hamas has been digging in, rejecting Western demands that it recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri was returning from Qatar when he was caught with the cash in a white pouch under his shirt and jacket at the Rafah border crossing, said Julio De La Guardia, spokesman for European observers who monitor the crossing with the Palestinian forces who answer to Abbas.

Travelers must declare any sum over $2,000 and explain where the money came from, said De La Guardia, adding, "He did not declare that money, he tried to smuggle it."

"If helping my people is a crime, it is one I am proud to commit," Abu Zuhri told reporters in Gaza.

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 07:32:44]

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