Bush comes to Israel's aid with financial crackdown on Hamas in U.S., Palestinian areas

Tuesday, December 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration froze the financial assets and closed the offices of a Texas-based foundation linked to Hamas on Tuesday, going after a militant Palestinian organization that claimed responsibility for last weekend's deadly attacks in Israel.

In a display of solidarity with Israel, President Bush also ordered a crackdown on two Palestinian groups accused of financing Hamas.

``The message is this: Those who do business with terror will do no business with the United States or anywhere else the United States can reach,'' the president said in a Rose Garden announcement with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Bush called Hamas one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world, and said it supports ``the total destruction of Israel.''

The Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, with offices in Illinois, California and New Jersey, denied ties to Hamas. The group, registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt charity, raised $13 million last year and calls itself the largest Muslim charity in the United States.

The foundation issued a statement that said, ``The decision by the U.S. government to seize the charitable donations of Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan is an affront to millions of Muslim Americans who entrust charities like ours to assist in fulfilling their religious obligations.''

Bush said Hamas uses money raised by the foundation to indoctrinate children to become suicide bombers and to support the families of suicide attackers. Most donors don't know how the money is used, Bush said, ``but the facts are clear, the terrorists benefit from the Holy Land Foundation, and we're not going to allow it.''

Hamas, already on the State Department terrorist list, said through a spokesman it gets no money from U.S. groups.

The action marked the administration's third round of orders against groups suspected of funneling money to terrorists from offices in America and abroad.

Bush has promised to lead a global coalition that uses military, financial, diplomatic and intelligence tools against terrorist cells, starting with the al-Qaida network based in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is suspected of being behind the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,500.

``The net is closing,'' Bush said before leaving for Florida, where he was discussing the economic impact of the attacks. ``Today, it just got tighter.''

Bush said Hamas has killed hundreds of people over the years, including two Americans in the past 12 months.

Israel praised his action, which took place a day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared war against terrorism and launched airstrikes against Palestinian targets.

``We welcome this kind of act,'' said Sharon aide Ranaan Gissin. ``It's cutting off the umbilical cord of terrorist groups. It's going to reduce their ability to act.''

Bush addressed reporters hours after O'Neill issued a midnight order shutting down Holy Land offices in Richardson, Texas; Paterson, N.J.; San Diego, Calif., and Bridgeview, Ill.

``This is not a case of one bad actor stealing from the petty cash drawer and giving that stolen money to terrorists,'' O'Neill said. ``This organization exists to raise money in the United States to promote terror.''

Ashcroft said the foundation is linked to an Internet company which was raided by the FBI and had its assets frozen six days before the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Tuesday, agents with the FBI and Treasury Department seized documents at Holy Land offices in hopes of finding evidence for the broad anti-terrorism case.

Boxes of food and documents were stacked at the offices in New Jersey. Agents were initially not allowed into the Texas offices, government officials said.

Ashcroft said agents were conducting voluntary interviews with foundation staff.

The two other groups targeted Tuesday were Al Aqsa International Bank and the Beit El-Mal Holdings Company, an investment group. It was not known whether the group had assets in American banks, but the administration was urging allies to target assets abroad.

The administration had planned to issue the orders later this month but moved up the action after the weekend attacks in Israel. The schedule change made it impossible to coordinate with allies as the administration did in October and November actions against alleged terrorist financing.

In Nablus, West Bank, Hamas spokesman Tasir Imran said: ``Hamas is funded by the Palestinian people here, not by foundations based in America or anywhere else in the world.''