JERUSALEM, June 24 (JTA) — Arab-Jewish tensions in Israel appear likely to rise after five senior members of the country´s Islamic Movement were indicted on terror-related charges. The five are members of the Islamic Movement´s northern branch, including its leader, Sheik Ra´ed Salah. The defendants are suspected of channeling millions of dollars raised by Hamas-linked groups abroad to Hamas-linked groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The defendants maintain that all the money raised was for humanitarian purposes — and if it got into terrorists´ hands, they say, they weren´t aware of it. Four of the defendants, including Salah, were charged with membership in a terrorist organization. Salah and another defendant also were charged with providing information to the enemy and having contact with a foreign agent. The charges relate to Shin Bet findings that the two had contact with an Iranian agent in Lebanon responsible for recruiting and commanding Israeli Arabs to obtain intelligence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel, the daily Ha´aretz reported. According to the indictment, Salah headed the mechanism that channeled the illegal funds. The money allegedly was transferred through the Umm el-Fahm offices of an organization called the Institute for Humanitarian Aid. Tens of millions of dollars were raised overseas through charities — many of them eventually outlawed — operating in countries including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Germany, the Netherlands and South Africa, according to the indictment. Most of the money allegedly was channeled in October 2000, the first full month of the Palestinian intifada. Israeli prosecutors believe there is firm evidence to support the allegations that funds were raised from illegal organizations. However, reports say prosecutors will have a more difficult time proving the allegations that the suspects had criminal intent in dispensing the money. Police have said that while the money was not specifically earmarked for terrorist attacks, it allegedly helped support terrorist organizations, allowing them to carry out attacks. Dozens of Islamic Movement supporters held a protest outside Haifa´s district court during Tuesday´s hearing. The demonstrators demanded the release of the five men, who have been held in detention since their arrests in May. The court kept the suspects in custody for two more weeks. Israeli Arab leaders have cast the investigation as a political witch hunt, further deepening the social schism and frustration felt by Israel´s Arabs, who represent about 20 percent of Israel´s population. At a news conference earlier in June marking a month since the suspects´ arrest, Knesset member Mohammed Barakeh accused the prosecution system in Israel of being propelled by "external considerations." Knesset member Talab El-Sana accused the government of "recruiting the entire judicial system" and politicizing it. At the same time, observers suggested that the trial would stoke fears among the country´s Jews regarding Israeli Arab support for and involvement in terrorism. Since the start of the intifada, several Israeli Arabs, including members of the Islamic Movement´s northern branch, have been arrested for having terrorist ties or for aiding attacks against Israelis. Several have been convicted.
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