- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

GAZA, Feb. 21 (UPI) — Leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad denied on Friday any link to four men arrested in Florida for membership in a terrorist organization.

On Thursday, the FBI detained University of South Florida professor Sami Amin Al Arian and three others, along with indicting four more overseas, all of whom it says "play a central role in global terrorism."

"They are material supporters of foreign terrorist organizations," said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft after the 50-count indictment was unsealed.

The eight suspects are charged with being members or leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They were identified in a 2001 State Department report as a terrorist organization.

Abdallah a-Shami, the leader of the group in Gaza, told United Press International that the American allegations about the four and their relation to PIJ "are fabricated and totally untrue claims."

The four overseas suspects include the secretary general for Islamic Jihad, 46-year-old Ramadan Shallah, who was born in Gaza and is based in Damascus, Syria.

"Including the name of our secretary general (Shallah) in this fabricated case makes us sure that he has no link to them since all other seven people are not members or leaders of the Islamic Jihad," said a-Shami.

Abdel Aziz Awda, another of the indicted four, founded the Islamic Jihad in the early 1980s and was the spiritual leader of the group. He was deported by Israel in 1986, and while living in Lebanon he became a member of the Palestinian National Council, the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He returned to Gaza in 1994, after the signing of the Oslo peace accords which established the Palestinian Authority.

Awda and the other members of the PNC convened in Gaza in 1995 and voted overwhelmingly to amend the provisions in the PLO charter that called for the destruction of the state of Israel.

The former imam of Al Qassam Mosque, now a lecturer at Al-Azhar University (a secular university in Gaza City), declined an interview with UPI and would not comment on the inclusion of his name in the indictment.

However, other sources in Islamic Jihad maintained Awda quit the organization shortly after his arrival in Lebanon. The break originated from a series of disagreements with Fathi Sheqaqi, then the secretary general of Islamic Jihad.

Sheqaqi was assassinated by the Israeli intelligence Mossad agents in Malta in October 1997. The current secretary general Shallah was immediately nominated as the Islamic Jihad chief — over Awda, who was excluded, said the sources.

Right after the Florida indictment was unsealed in the United States, the Islamic Jihad immediately issued a leaflet in Gaza denying any link.

"There are no extensions to our organization in any country in the world as the officials of the United States, which became more Zionist that the Israeli government, claim," the group asserted.

The leaflet also said the timing of the arrests "aims to silence Arabs and Muslims who oppose the racist American policy that supports occupation and aggression on the Palestinian and the Iraqi people."

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