Israel arrests Palestinian party leader and supporters over 'Hamas link'

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The Independent Online

Israeli police arrested the leader and 14 members of one of the largest Israeli Arab political parties yesterday.

Sheikh Ra'ed Salah and his followers in the Islamic Movement were accused of channelling funds to Hamas, which has carried out suicide bombings. The Islamic Movement denied any links with Hamas.

It was not clear whether the authorities were accusing the Islamic Movement of directly funding suicide bombings and other militant attacks. Israel's Public Security Minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, spoke of evidence that the group had sent funds to the relatives of suicide bombers and to Hamas militants in prison. He said police had evidence which "proves that the suspects engaged in the illegal transfer of millions of shekels from abroad ... There is no doubt that the suspects knew that the money went to Hamas."

Mr Hanegbi claimed: "There is no way to make a distinction between acquiring an explosive device and aid to families of suicide bombers, or transferring funds to jailed security prisoners and Hamas arch-murderers serving life terms."

The arrests will contribute further to poor relations between the Israeli authorities and the 1.2 million Israeli Arabs, Palestinians who live inside Israel rather than the occupied territories, and have Israeli citizenship. The Islamic Movement is a legal party. Until yesterday its leadership had not been formally accused of wrongdoing. Although most Israeli Arabs support the Palestinians of the occupied territories in principle, in general they have stayed out of this intifada, unlike in the first, less violent, intifada in which they played a much larger role.

The Islamic Movement split into two factions some time ago. One took part in Israeli elections earlier this year, and won two seats in the Knesset – a significant drop in its support. But it was the other, more radical faction which boycotted the elections that was targeted yesterday.

This faction is known to have sent money to the occupied territories, some in food aid, some in grants to the relatives of Palestinians killed in the violence. The Israelis appeared to suggest that some of this money was going to the relatives of suicide bombers.

But the faction's deputy leader, Kamal Khatib, denied that, claiming the group only sent money to the relatives of innocent civilians killed by the Israeli army.