Israel urges EU to freeze assets of Hamas funders

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Israel is pressing the European Union to follow Washington's example and freeze the assets of charities raising funds for Hamas, the radical Islamic movement responsible for last Tuesday's suicide bombing, which killed 20 bus passengers on their way home from prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

President George Bush announced on Friday that the United States would act to block the bank accounts of five Hamas support groups, including the British-based Palestinian Relief and Development Fund, also known as Interpal. The other four have their headquarters in France, Switzerland, Austria and Lebanon. The groups claim that they are funding Hamas's extensive social programme in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, not its military activities.

Washington also froze the personal accounts of six Hamas leaders in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. They included Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement's charismatic founder, and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, its principal spokesman, who was the target of a botched Israeli assassination attempt in June. Hamas says they have no private wealth to freeze.

"By claiming responsibility for the despicable act of terror on 19 August," Mr Bush said, "Hamas has reaffirmed that it is a terrorist organisation committed to violence against Israelis and to undermining progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. I call upon all nations supportive of peace in the Middle East to recognise Hamas as a terrorist organisation and to take all appropriate actions to deny it support."

Israel yesterday welcomed the President's announcement more as a message to the Europeans than as a deathblow to Hamas fundraising. An American official told reporters that several European countries "appeared supportive" of the asset freeze, the first effort to block Hamas funds outside the US.

Mr Bush, furious at the collapse of his peace initiative, was endorsing the Israeli argument that there is no distinction between the Hamas military and political wings, a line still drawn by the Europeans. Briefing EU ambassadors last week, Silvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, urged the Europeans to add Hamas, in all its incarnations, to their blacklist of terrorist organisations.

"We hope the European foreign ministers, meeting on 5 September, will take action against Hamas," Yoav Biran, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told The Independent on Sunday yesterday. "There is only one Hamas, and it is a terrorist organisation. Its social fund is a mechanism to transfer money to terrorist activity."

In Gaza, Atef Edwan, a pro-Hamas political science professor, denounced Mr Bush for joining the "dirty war" on the Islamic movement."There is an international effort to strike Hamas, but they will not succeed, even if Israel eliminates its political leaders. Hamas has the ability to recreate itself. It is an ideological movement whose supporters strongly believe in its ideology. It is one of the most disciplined Palestinian factions."

After the Jerusalem bombing,Israel and the Palestinian Authority called on Mr Bush to intervene to prevent an escalation of bloodshed. The Israelis want him to force Mahmoud Abbas's government to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as required by the international road-map peace plan. The Palestinians want him to send observers to supervise a ceasefire.

On Friday, Mr Bush obliged the Israelis and disappointed the Palestinians. Those Palestinians who yearned for an independent state, he said, "must dismantle the terrorist network". Washington was reluctant, however, to urge restraint on the Israelis, even after one of their helicopter gunships assassinated Ismail Abu Shanab, a senior Hamas leader. At his funeral in Gaza on Friday, Hamas threatened bloody revenge. Israel knows they mean it.