Hamas Spokesman Caught Trying to Smuggle Money to Gaza

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - A senior figure in the Hamas terrorist organization was caught trying to smuggle hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Gaza Strip on Friday, a European Union spokesman said. The smuggling attempt comes amid an escalating power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, the faction loyal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri was hiding more than $800,000 on his body when he crossed from Egypt into Gaza, said Julio Delagardia, press officer for the European Union Border Assistance Mission.

The E.U. has been monitoring P.A. authorities posted at the Rafah border crossing under a U.S.-brokered deal that allowed Israeli personnel to leave the area late last year.

P.A. customs officials asked to search Abu Zuhri, Delagardia said. International regulations require amounts exceeding $200,000 to be declared when crossing an international border. "He did not declare the money. He tried to smuggle it," said Delagardia.

Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri was quoted by Reuters as saying that Abu Zuhri had been carrying contributions from Arab nations to the P.A. government, intended to pay for prisoners jailed in Israel.

P.A. chief negotiator Dr. Saeb Erekat said the case (and the money) has been turned over to the P.A.'s attorney general. It is now a legal matter.

It's "very serious," Erekat said, but the fact that "our customs people" nabbed Abu Zuhri is a "good sign," he added.

About 100 Hamas gunman dashed to the terminal, which is guarded by forces of P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' presidential guard, heightening tensions.

Abbas deployed security forces in Gaza this week after P.A. Interior Minister Said Siam (Hamas) defied Abbas and established a 3,000-man internal security force.

The Hamas-led P.A. is under international sanctions, which have prevented the payment of salaries to more than 145,000 civil servants for more than two months.

The cash-strapped government refuses to recognize Israel, abandon terrorism and abide by agreements already made between Israel and the P.A.

'Important sign'

Abbas reportedly will meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Sunday on the sidelines of the International Economic Forum in Sharm e-Sheikh, Egypt.

The international community favors talks between Abbas, the elected leader of the Palestinians, and Israel. But Israel so far has rejected the idea of talking with Abbas, saying that nothing could come out of talks as long as he is backed by a Hamas-led government.

Erekat said he did not want to "raise expectations" about the talks but nevertheless called it an "important sign."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is due to meet with President Bush in Washington next week. He's expected to discuss his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank -- to set Israel's permanent borders.

In an interview with the New York Times published on Friday, Olmert said the "main question" is whether Abbas would be a serious negotiating partner. He must "take vigorous action against the terrorist organizations, including Hamas," Olmert said.

Washington has not yet supported the idea of another Israeli unilateral move.

Erekat said he hoped President Bush would be able to convince Olmert that unilateral moves will not work. The only way to reach an agreement is through Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, he said.

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