Palestinians freeze funds of local Islamic charities

Friday, August 29, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinian authorities said Thursday they froze the bank accounts of nine Islamic charities to investigate whether the organizations funnel money to militants -- the Palestinians' most striking action yet in a U.S.-sought clampdown on armed groups.

Israel welcomed the decision but threatened tough action after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit near the coastal city of Ashkelon, the deepest strike since Hamas began firing Qassams toward Israel in November 2001.

Later Thursday, an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at a target in the Gaza Strip, killing a Hamas member and wounding at least three other people, officials and witnesses said. Palestinians identified the dead man as Hamdi Kalkha, 23, a member of Hamas' military wing. The Israeli army had no immediate comment.

Israeli bulldozers and tanks earlier flattened brush just inside Gaza to rob militants of cover -- the first foray into Palestinian-controlled land since Israel withdrew from parts of Gaza in July under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Security officials said the move was not a prelude to a major military strike.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Hamas was trying to hit a power plant just south of Ashkelon. The rockets caused little damage or injury, but Israel considers them a strategic threat.

The Palestinian Monetary Authority issued the order to shut down 39 accounts of the nine charities on Sunday. The move became known Thursday, when hundreds of Palestinians relying on welfare payments from charities tried to pick up their monthly checks at banks in Gaza City.

The banks said the accounts were blocked and turned them away.

Dore Gold, an Israeli government spokesman, praised the move.

"There have been charities that Israel has long suspected of being front organizations for Hamas," he said. "Anything that serves this need (of stopping the flow of money) is a positive development."

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