The three Israelis, who came from the Kfar Darom colony near the Palestinian town of Dair al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, were posing as humanitarian aid workers bringing financial help to the impoverished Palestinians of the area of al-Maani this past week, said General Yusuf Issa of Palestinian preventive security.

When a Palestinian resident became suspicious, the group drove off, running down 11 Palestinians who had gathered in a crowd, witnesses said.

Ten of the injured were taken to the local Shuhada al-Aqsa hospital, while one was airlifted to an Israeli hospital in Soroka, Israeli officials told Aljazeera.net. Palestinian medical officials confirmed the account.

"We received 10 of the 11 injured Palestinians. Nine were injured moderately, and one seriously. One 16-year-old boy had a broken arm, and another Palestinian man lost his eye. Three of them were hospitalised," Shuhada al-Aqsa hospital director Ibrahim al-Masdar told Aljazeera.net.

Identity question

Issa said two of the three men suspected in the scam were Arab-Israelis from the town of al-Lydd in northern Israel and one was a Jewish settler.

"They tried to make a scam, but all three were arrested and are in jail. We are investigating all angles"

Avi Zelba,
police spokesperson

But Israeli police said all three were Israelis of Arab descent - two from al-Lydd and one from Tel Aviv.

"They tried to make a scam, but all three were arrested and are in jail. We are investigating all angles," police spokesperson Avi Zelba said.

Al-Masdar said it was impossible for medical staff to get to the victims because al-Maani is off-limits to non-residents.

"People from the area had to get the injured Palestinians to us, as ambulances were not immediately allowed inside," he said.

Restricted entry

Al-Maani has been sealed off from the rest of the Gaza Strip since July 2002, and about 140 Palestinians live there surrounded by the Israeli settlement bloc of Kfar Darom in the central Gaza Strip.

Residents suffer from restrictions on their movements and are allowed to enter and leave the area only at certain hours.

Palestinians living in the enclave told Aljazeera.net they were visited on 30 June by Volker Nannen, who claimed to be a German national living in the Netherlands and working for a German non-governmental organisation.

He was accompanied by an Arab-Israeli lawyer named Essam Hamdan, who told residents the organisation was providing money for humanitarian relief.

Money worries

The Palestinians were given up to $1000 each after signing papers with their ID numbers and signatures, said al-Maani resident Abdallah Ma'ni.

Hamdan returned on 5 July, saying he was there to distribute more money.

Ma'ni, 30, who was present when the 11 reportedly were run down, said that on Tuesday evening, Hamdan and others arrived in a white Jeep.

"He called us into a room, one by one, and asked us to sign a collection of about six  documents that he said were thank-you letters to the German NGO and that then we would receive more donations," Ma'ni told Aljazeera.net.

Doubts

A younger member of a Palestinian family suspected foul play, Ma'ni said, and residents tried to stop the meeting.

Ma'ni believes Israeli soldiers
allowed the men through

"We placed rocks behind the wheels of the car so it couldn't leave, and we attempted to take back the papers we signed. But Hamdan and the three individuals with him drove off," said Ma'ni.

The group escaped to the settlement, running into a crowd of Palestinians in the process.

Ma'ni says instead of stopping the perpetrators, Israeli forces came to the area and protected the path of their vehicle back to the settlement.

"We could see the local leader of the Kfar Darom settlement on the other side of the fence assisting them in their escape. He let them pass through to the settlement and the Israeli army secured their path back," Ma'ni said.

Land plan

Ma'ni believes Hamdan was trying to buy the land surrounding the settlement on behalf of the settlers.

"No one can enter the settlement area unless they first pass through Kfar Darom, it is impossible. He couldn't have gotten here to us unless the settlement leader was in front of him and helped him out," he said.

The documents, a copy of which were obtained by Aljazeera.net, contained a simple contract stipulating that the Palestinian signatory is the owner of a certain area of land and that the owner agrees to sell the land to the named German citizen and his lawyer Essam Hamdan has power of attorney in this matter.

The contract also states that the seller commits to leaving the property within one day of the sale and that the buyer will pay $6900 for the property, and an additional $1000 upon signature of the contract.

Israeli soldiers confiscated the rest of the documents after the incident, according to Hamdi Shakoura, assistant director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza.

The Israeli army denied that settlers were involved in the incident, saying they only knew of "one person ... an Arab-Israeli".

"This is an Arab-Israeli who entered the area and claimed he was running a scheme," said a spokesperson for the army, adding that there was no Israeli army involvement and referring Aljazeera.net to the Israeli police for details.