Saturday, December 2, 2006

In U.S. District Court in Chicago, the U.S. government is prosecuting two men it claims conspired to finance the activities of Hamas — the organization elected in January to lead the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Since Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza last year, Hamas and other terror groups have turned the territory into a base for firing rockets into the Jewish state, putting the region on a war footing. The two men on trial, Mohammed Salah and Abdelhhaleem al- Ashqar, are accused of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to fund Hamas from the United States for more than a decade.

The government contends that Mr. Salah recruited Hamas members in the United States and trained them in using explosives, and traveled to Israel to deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to Hamas members. In January 1993, the government charges, Mr. Salah went to Israel to deliver money to Hamas. He was arrested by Israeli security forces, and was tried and convicted for his role in aiding the terrorist group, serving five years in prison.

Mr. Salah claims his confession to Israeli authorities was false because it was obtained through torture. Prosecutors counter that, while in Israeli custody, Mr. Salah, thinking he was communicating with fellow inmates who were Hamas members, wrote a 53-page document describing in detail his work on behalf of Hamas. They say that Mr. Salah offered to provide Israel with the location of the body of Ilan Sa’adon, an Israeli soldier kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in 1989, in exchange for the release from prison of Salah Shehadah, the founder of Hamas’ military wing. When the Israelis refused the offer, Mr. Salah changed his demands, insisting on the release of female Palestinian prisoners and the return of $100,000 that the Israelis confiscated from his hotel room. When the Israelis agreed to the offer, Mr. Salah drew a map which led Israelis to the body of the slain soldier.

In Mr. Ashqar’s case, the government was monitoring his telephone and fax machine. Investigators say they intercepted a September 1993 telephone conversation in which Mr. Ashqar and Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi (assassinated by Israel in April 2004) discussed a suicide bombing which occurred the previous day and Rantisi asked Ashqar to put him in touch with the suicide bomber’s family. The state is presenting more than 1,000 pages of documents taken from Mr. Ashqar’s home, which are said to include minutes of high-level meetings involving Mousa abu Marzouk (a senior Hamas operative now thought to be in Damascus). The documents include notes on meetings between Marzouk and Yasser Arafat; notes of meetings between Hamas and Hezbollah and Hamas and Iran, and aliases of senior Hamas leaders including Mahmoud al-Zahhar (currently Palestinian Authority foreign minister) and Imad al-Alami, a Hamas representative in Tehran. More detailed information on the trial from terrorism expert Steven Emerson can be found at the Counterterrorism Blog or at

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