Israeli and U.S. officials are dismissing claims made by a senior political leader of Hamas that the Islamic fundamentalist group is not fund raising in the United States.
“We have several instances where we have been able to show the transfer to substantial cash funds from the United States to areas in the Mideast,” FBI Director Louis Freeh said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Tuesday.
The Treasury Department has seized more than $800,000 from Hamas bank accounts since President Clinton outlawed the group last year, according to officials.
The latest focus on Hamas activities comes as Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States are working to crack down on Hamas in the wake of a series of suicide bombings in Israel.
The focus also comes in response to recent statements by Musa Abu Marzook, jailed in New York since July for possible extradition to Israel. His case is not expected to be resolved in the near future.
In interviews last week, Marzook denied charges that Hamas in involved in fund raising here and that he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hamas, despite bank records that suggest otherwise.
“Marzook is responsible for atrocities and crimes perpetrated against our population and we would like to try him and sentence him for these crimes,” Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich told CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Asked at a recent news briefing whether Hamas is actively engaged in raising funds in the United States, Rabinovich said, “It’s not a question of opinion, it’s a question of facts, and I’m afraid they still do.”
Marzook – who represented Hamas at Meetings with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and describes himself as the head of the political bureau of Hamas – has been charged by Israel with conspiracy to commit murder, manslaughter and other crimes against Israelis.
U.S. prosecutors have also charged that he raised funds for Hamas, including money for arms, and that he oversaw the recruitment of terrorists.
“I never raised any money in the United States and I never sent any money out of the United States,” Marzook told “60 Minutes” in one of his first interviews since his detention.
Rabinovich said he has no doubt that Marzook – a 45-year-old businessman who has a doctorate in engineering from the University of Louisiana and has recently lived in Virginia – was involved in helping to orchestrate and fund terrorism from the United States.
Records released by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney document transfers in 1992 and 1993 of more than $700,000 from a Virginia bank account Marzook jointly held to a Chicago bank account of Muhammad Kalil Salah, who recently served a jail sentence in Israel.
Salah has claimed that he was given instructions to use the funds to recruits terrorists, buy weapons and finance military operations.
“Papers which were filed by the government of Israel in support of [Marzook’s] extradition recount not just leadership in Hamas but also indicate control of funds and fund raising and the transfer of assets between the United States and organizations in the Mideast that support terrorist activity,” Freeh told lawmakers.
In an interview with The New York Times, Marzook denied any suggestion of organized Hamas activity in the United States.
“Hamas’ only structure is inside Palestine,” Marzook said. “There is no organization outside.”
Steve Emerson, a journalist and expert on terrorism, disputed that claim at another congressional hearing Tuesday, saying that the Hamas network stretches across five continents.
The United States “is one of the main havens for the leadership, political activity, fund raising and strategic planning” of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Emerson said at a hearing of the House International Relations Committee on PLO compliance and Middle East terrorism.
Rabinovich also told “60 Minutes” that there are “very good reasons for every political operative, every international movement to have a base in the United States.”
“After all, this is the center of international politics. This is where the most important media are,” he said. “This is where you have a significant Arab and Muslim population. You can fund raise among them.”
Marzook said he agreed to the interviews in order to call for an end to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, predicting that efforts to reign in the military wing of Hamas in the wake of the recent spate of suicide bombings would not succeed.
“Nobody can tell them to stop or not stop,” he told The New York Times. “The political wing is completely separate from these people.”
But in his testimony, Emerson discounted claims made in recent weeks about an ideological split between moderate and militant wings of Hamas.
“The split – to the extent it really exists – is simply over the timing of tactics,” Emerson said. “There is no such thing as a moderate Hamas official.”
He added, “Although the political and religious officials assiduously cultivate an image of being thoroughly disconnected to and unaware of any military activities, the multiple independent confessions of several Hamas terrorists and couriers arrested by Israel in the last few years show that senior Hamas religious officials actually direct terrorist operations.”
Marzook said attempts to destroy Hamas’ network of schools, hospitals and social programs would only backfire, leading to more violence.
Asked whether he considered the recent suicide bombings launched by Hamas militants acts of terrorism, Marzook told “60 Minutes,” “No, I don’t consider that terrorism.”
“I think you have to ask why the people did that,” he said.
In an appeal for more lenient treatment, Marzook likened himself to Gerry Adams, the leader of the Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, who has been received around the world like a diplomat and has been welcomed by the White House.
“What is the difference between Gerry Adams and me? He is blue-eyed and Catholic,” Marzook said. “I am not blue-eyed and I am a Muslim.”