Bush freezes assets of U.S. group with Hamas links

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's decision this week to link a U.S.-based charitable organization with Hamas fulfills a long-standing request by Jewish community activists.

President Bush announced Tuesday that the Treasury Department has frozen the assets of three groups he linked to Hamas, including the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which is based in Richardson, Texas.

Bush said funds contributed to the organization are "used by Hamas to support schools and indoctrinate children to grow up into suicide bombers."

"The facts are clear: The terrorists benefit from the Holy Land Foundation, and we're not going to allow it," Bush said. "Our action today is another step in the war on terrorism."

Hamas claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa over the weekend, which killed at least 25 people.

The White House announcement, reportedly moved forward several days in light of the weekend's attacks against Israel, appeared to signal U.S. support for Israel as it defends itself against terrorist attacks.

It was also an additional sign that organizations that target Israel are being included in the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.

The Bush administration is accusing the Holy Land Foundation of making direct fund transfers to its offices in Palestinian-controlled territories and to the offices of other charity groups either linked to Hamas or controlled by the terrorist group.

The organization, originally called the Occupied Land Fund, was founded in part with funds provided by Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, a political leader of Hamas who was deemed a terrorist by the Treasury Department in 1995.

A year earlier, Marzook called Holy Land Foundation the primary fund-raising entity for Hamas, the White House said.

The two other organizations whose assets were frozen Tuesday were Beit el-Mar Holdings, an investment company allegedly controlled by Hamas members, and Al-Aqsa Islamic Bank, allegedly the financial arm of Hamas, and substantially owned by Beit el-Mar Holdings.

The Holy Land Foundation, which the White House says raised $13 million in the United States last year, has for years been on the radar screens of American Jewish organizations, which have urged the United States to investigate its practices.

In 1998, the Anti-Defamation League accused the Holy Land Foundation of violating federal law that made it illegal to raise funds or accept contributions for terrorist organizations.

"We commend the Bush administration for today's steps to freeze the assets of the Holy Land Foundation and other U.S.-based supporters of terrorist organizations operating against Israel, including Hamas," the ADL's national director, Abraham Foxman, said Tuesday.

"Hamas is among the deadliest terrorist groups in the world, an organization with international ties that seek the destruction of the state of Israel."

Other Jewish groups and lawmakers have also been monitoring Holy Land and speaking out against the group's links to terrorists.

Speculation about the organization began in 1997, when the Holy Land Foundation's director in eastern Jerusalem, Muhammad Othman, was arrested by Israeli authorities for distributing monthly stipends to families of Hamas suicide bombers and activists. Israel banned the group that year.

According to an investigation by the Dallas Morning News printed last year, the U.S. arm of the Holy Land Foundation has been under federal investigation since 1996, and government officials had previously considered placing the group on a terrorist list or freezing its assets.

In the past few years, the net of suspicion around the group has widened.

The State Department last year requested that the Agency for International Development remove the Holy Land Foundation from its roster of charities and relief groups. The listing enabled the group to apply for federal grants.

Also last year, American Airlines removed the organization from a list of charities to which passengers can donate frequent flier miles. Mileage was sold by the airline to the charity after it showed its tax-exempt status, which it still holds. The airline said it was removing all charities involved in controversial issues, including abortion.

In addition, Bank One America has chosen not to do business with Holy Land Foundation.

The organization was on trial in federal court, being held responsible for the death of a 17-year-old killed in the West Bank in 1996. The ongoing case has focused on whether organizations that provide financial support for terrorist groups can be held responsible for the groups' actions.

In announcing this week's action against the Holy Land Foundation, Attorney General John Ashcroft linked the organization to Infocom, an Internet company also based in Richardson. Ashcroft said the two companies shared personnel and office space, and both were originally funded by Marzook.

Federal agents locked down offices of the Holy Land Foundation Tuesday and took custody of their records. The raids included the organization's other offices in San Diego, Paterson, N.J., and Bridgeview, Ill.

The organization denied the allegations in a statement Tuesday. "We feel the Holy Land Foundation has been unfairly targeted in the nationwide smear campaign to undermine Muslims and the institutions that serve them," the unsigned letter said.

Hamas has claimed responsibility for at least 20 bombings, two shootings, one kidnapping and a mortar attack since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000, according to the White House.

At least 77 people, including two Americans, were killed as a result of their actions, not including the most recent attacks, the White House also said.

Hamas, which has gained popularity in the West Bank and Gaza by distributing welfare and charity to Palestinians, has long been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department — as have other groups that target Israel, including Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The assets of those organizations and their members were frozen last month in actions similar to those taken against the Al Qaida network following the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.