- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli security forces seized millions of dollars in cash from four Palestinian bank branches yesterday, saying much of the money was sent by Iran, Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas to fund Palestinian militants.

During the raids, dozens of Palestinians threw stones at soldiers who imposed a curfew on downtown Ramallah during the raids. Seventeen Palestinians were injured by rubber bullets and live rounds, including three who were in critical condition, doctors said.

The joint operation by police, the army and the Shin Bet security service marked Israel’s largest-scale effort in more than three years of fighting to stop the flow of funds to Palestinian militant groups, including from Hezbollah, Israeli officials said.

Troops were accompanied by computer specialists from two of the banks who had been arrested overnight, Palestinian officials said. Soldiers covered the banks’ cameras with sacks or disabled them and confined employees to back rooms, witnesses said. Customers were allowed to leave after identification checks.

“The purpose of this operation is to impair the funneling of funds, which oil the wheels of terror against Israel,” an Israeli army statement said.

Israeli forces checked several hundred bank accounts, including some belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, security sources said. An Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the forces also were looking for evidence of any involvement by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in funding terror attacks.

The forces took the equivalent of $6.5 million to $9 million from the bank vaults, corresponding to the amount of money found in the targeted accounts, security sources said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia called the move “very, very dangerous” and others worried that the raid could cause Palestinians to lose confidence in their banking system and spark a run on the banks today.

“It’s like the mafia,” Mr. Qureia said of the raid. “I think it should be dealt with in a very serious way.”

The operation is part of the “global war” on terrorist funding, an army statement said.

Much of the seized money came from Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, the sources said, adding that it would be used to fund Palestinian humanitarian projects.

Troops driving jeeps, armored personnel carriers and trucks blocked off main roads in Ramallah and declared a curfew before the raids.

Troops raided two branches of the Arab Bank, as well as offices of the Cairo Amman Bank and the International Palestine Bank, Palestinian security officials said. Soldiers also took over several other buildings, witnesses said.

The raids came a day after Palestinian security officials confirmed that Hezbollah helped fund the latest two Jerusalem bus bombings — on Jan. 29 and on Sunday — in which 18 Israelis and a foreign worker were killed.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed group with ties to Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack. The militant group and Hamas issued conflicting claims of responsibility for the Jan. 29 attack, and security officials said Hamas and Islamic Jihad were involved in both bombings.

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