JERUSALEM — ISRAEL has arrested two Americans suspected of being organizers for the radical Islamist Hamas organization, it was announced here yesterday.
The two United States citizens of Palestinian origin are "leading activists in the Hamas organization in the United States," according to an Israeli Army statement. The men, detained last week, also reportedly had $100,000 in their possession.
Mohammed Abdul Hamid Salah and Mohammed Joma Hilmig Jarad, both of Chicago, are suspected of having come to reorganize Hamas after Israel last month expelled 415 men accused of being activists of the outlawed group.
Neither man had been informed of any charges against him when a US consular official visited them last week at a military detention facility in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, according to a US Consulate spokesman.
The arrests follow a leak two weeks ago of an Israeli intelligence briefing paper on Hamas activities abroad. It claimed that the Muslim fundamentalist organization receives funding and directives from activists in the United States.
At the time, Israeli officials played down the report, describing the briefing paper as unsubstantiated. It now appears the officials did so in order to defuse interest in the allegations, because the two men were kept under surveillance from the moment they arrived separately at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv on Jan. 14 and 15.
Forty more alleged Hamas members have been arrested in the operation, the Army said, and more arrests are expected. Mr. Salah and Mr. Jarad "met different people, activists in the territories, and distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, an Army spokesman.
"It is clear they were distributing funds for terrorist activity, to purchase weapons," he added. "There is overwhelming evidence against them." He did not say when the men would be charged.
The announcement of the arrests comes as Washington is putting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to provide clemency to some of the nearly 400 expellees to help head off a possible United Nations Security Council vote on sanctions against Israel because of the expulsions. The expellees still live in tents in a patch of no man's land between Lebanon and Israel.
Evidence of US citizens' involvement in Hamas activities would divert attention from the expulsions and could relieve some US pressure, Western diplomats here suggest.
The Israeli intelligence briefing paper, presented to the Cabinet three weeks ago, identified a Palestinian from Gaza, Moussa Abu Mazouk, as the head of an office in Virginia that is said to coordinate Hamas activities in the occupied territories.
It also identified a man code-named "Abu Ahmed" as responsible for communications between the Virginia office and the territories. Abu Ahmed's real name is Mohammed Salah, one of the Americans arrested last week, Colonel Fogel said.
Salah visited the West Bank and Gaza last August, Fogel said, when he is also believed to have distributed funds to Hamas activists.