Israeli troops loot Arab millions

Israeli soldiers have stolen millions of dollars from three banks and an aid group during raids in the Palestinian territories.

    Israeli soldiers fired live rounds at Palestinian protesters

    The soldiers burst into the banks in Ram Allah on 

    Wednesday, corralled employees, covered security cameras and walked out with several

    millions in cash.

    Israel said it took between $6.7

    mn and $8.9mn from the vaults of the three branches, in an attack it said targeted funds funnelled

    by Iran, Syria and Lebanese guerrillas to Palestinian resistance groups.

    An Israeli official later said

    the money would be spent on unspecified humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

    The raid began on Tuesday night, when Israel arrested computer experts from

    two of the banks.

    Raid

    On Wednesday morning, troops in jeeps, trucks and armoured

    personnel carriers sealed off downtown Ram Allah as security forces

    strode into the Cairo Amman Bank and two branches of the Arab

    Bank, Palestinian officials said.

    Troops covered the banks' cameras with sacks or disabled them and herded

    the employees together, before eventually releasing them, witnesses said.

    Customers were allowed to leave after identification checks.

    "It (the raid) is like the mafia...

    I think it should be dealt with in a very serious

    way"

    Ahmad Quraya,
    Palestinian prime minister

    The Israelis sifted through several hundred bank accounts.

    During the raids, dozens of Palestinians in the streets threw stones at

    soldiers, who responded with tear gas, metal-core rubber bullets and live

    rounds, hospital officials said.

    Forty-two people were injured and three were

    in a critical condition, according to doctors.

    Outrage

    Palestinians reacted with outrage to the raids.

    "The Occupation's Armed Robbery," read the huge red headline in al-Hayat a

    l-Jadida, a newspaper close to the Palestinian Authority, in its Thursday

    edition.

    Palestinian officials said the raid violated banking agreements and could

    trigger a run on the banks.

    Finance Minister Salam Fayad said: "

    Such

    measures will hurt, to a large extent, the Palestinian economy and

    its institutions."

    And Prime Minister Ahmad

    Quraya said:

    "It's like the mafia...

    I think it should be dealt with in a very serious

    way."

    Even the US, Israel's ally and protector, criticised the operation.

    US criticism

    State

    Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Israel should have coordinated with Palestinian authorities before launching the raid.

    "Some of these actions risk destabilising the Palestinian

    banking system, so we would prefer to see Israeli coordination with the

    Palestinian financial authorities in order to stem the flow of funds to

    terrorist groups," he said.

    Boucher said during the past 18 months the US,

    Israel and the Palestinians have introduced better

    accounting procedures and more openness about the flow of funds.

    Israel says Hizb Allah is funding 
    Palestinian resistance groups 

    "That's been a positive thing, both for the Israelis but especially for

    the Palestinians, who see where their money goes and who see this being

    handled appropriately for the people who live in these territories."

    But he added: "We certainly recognise the need to cut off funding for terror organisations ... we've always called for Palestinian leaders to take immediate, credible steps to end terror and violence."

    "Terror funding"

    Meanwhile, an Israeli official called the robbery a "legal confiscation", and

    said the raid was part of the global fight against "terror funding".

    "This money is the fuel for Palestinian terror, and I am convinced we

    have to dry up the paths for this fuel," Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said.

    Israel said the Palestinian banking system has been hijacked to finance resistance

    groups that have

    killed more than 900 Israelis in bombings and shootings.

    Much of the funding came from Iran, Syria and Lebanese Hizb Allah fighters

    , Israeli security sources said on Wednesday, without providing

    specifics.

    But Gil Feiler, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv's BESA Centre for Strategic

    Studies, said little of the foreign money sent to "militants" is funneled

    through banks.

    "People are coming with $100,000 in their luggage," he

    said.

    No proof needed

    And former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin told Israel's Channel One television 

    he doubted the government could prove that the money it seized was

    earmarked for militant groups.

    However, Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the ruling Likud party, said that did not

    matter.

    "We are in a war against the Palestinians and the Palestinian

    Authority. It is not about proof," he said.

    The raids marked the largest search yet for money transfers to resistance

    groups, and the first time forces have stolen money from

    Palestinian banks.

    Last

    year, troops raided a bank in a West Bank suburb of Jerusalem, and the

    Palestinian Authority briefly froze the bank accounts of Palestinian

    charities in the Gaza Strip to check for possible links to Hamas.

    "This money is the fuel for Palestinian terror, and I am convinced we

    have to dry up the paths for this fuel"

    Shaul Mofaz,
    Defence Minister

    Israel-Palestinian meeting

    The Palestinian banking system has remained relatively stable, despite more than three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence that has decimated the Palestinian economy.

    The raids came a day after Palestinian security officials said Hizb

     Allah helped fund the last two Jerusalem bus bombings -

    on 29 January and Sunday - in which 18 Israelis and a foreign worker were

    killed.

    The Lebanese group had transferred payments of $50,000 to a resistance

    leader in the West Bank city of Nablus every two or three months for

    distribution to different cells

    , according to a resistance fighter.

    Despite the raids, Palestinian cabinet minister Saib Uraiqat met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's top aide, Dov

    Weisglass, to discuss a

    long delayed summit between Sharon and Quraya.

    The men agreed to meet again

    before such a summit, Sharon's office said.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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