THE White House is expected to announce as early as today tough new measures aimed at cutting off fund-raising in the United States for a Palestinian terrorist group that seeks to derail the Middle East peace process.
The move against the Gaza Strip-based Islamic Resistance Group, Hamas, would be the latest in a series of steps the administration has taken this week to try to aid Israel in curbing terrorism - including a pledge of $100 million to the Shimon Peres government.
Yet behind the expected move to cut off funding lie some enduring questions: How much money does Hamas get from supporters in the US? And what can the government really do?
While no one knows the exact figures, the Palestinian group, members of which have claimed responsibility for four bombings in Israel in recent weeks, is believed to have raised $500,000 to $1 million in the US.
Much of this, to be sure, goes to Palestinian charities and social services for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But US and Israeli intelligence officials also believe portions are used to underwrite terrorist activities.
In congressional testimony this week, FBI director Louis Freeh would say only that ''substantial amounts'' of money are being sent to Hamas from the US. He said it was difficult to track the amount.
The latest steps to plug the Hamas financial pipeline from the US will likely involve a further tightening of already existing sanctions and may involve tighter surveillance of Middle East groups, Treasury Department sources say.
How effective the new measures will be in stopping terrorism is questionable. The amount of US dollars sent to Hamas, a disparate Islamic organization that is also one of the largest Palestinian social service groups in Gaza, appears to be relatively small.
Few funds are needed, experts say, to carry out operations dependent on a suicide bomb that can be made for $50. Moreover, Israeli officials estimate that 40 to 50 percent of Hamas's outside funding comes from Gulf states. Some 10 percent is believed to come from Europe and the US.
''Stopping the funding is really more symbolic than anything,'' says terrorism expert Neil Livingston, who runs an international crisis management agency in Washington. ''It's not that expensive to hit these targets.''
American Arab and Muslim leaders, and some Middle East experts, question turning a local Middle East political organization into an enemy of the US. ''This may very well backfire,'' says James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute. ''I see the US government running roughshod over something it doesn't understand.''
In January 1995, following a bus bombing in Tel Aviv, President Clinton issued an executive order making it illegal for US funds to support Hamas, and 11 other Middle East groups, including two Jewish organizations. For the first time, rather than targeting a state as ''terrorist,'' the US government targeted groups that had as part of their makeup a religious agenda, and that exist in states with which the US is not at war.
The order was also a reversal of US policy. As recently as 1993 some members of Congress tried to make membership in Hamas an excludable offense. But White House and State Department officials blocked the action, saying that Hamas was an important charitable and social service agency.
Since the order, some $800,000 in funds aimed at Palestinian groups, including Hamas, has been frozen - mostly in the accounts of three individuals, according to a Treasury Department report in February.
Two of the accounts are Hamas-related, those of Mohammed Salah, a Palestinian American now in an Israeli prison, and Musa Abu Marzuk, a US resident considered a political leader of Hamas who is in a New York jail awaiting an extradition hearing.
Mr. Salah was detained with $650,000 that he confessed was for Hamas military operations. Some US officials say the signed confession is suspect since it was made after a month of interrogation and was written for Salah in Hebrew, a language he does not read.
During the height of the Palestinian intifadah, groups like the Holy Land Foundation in Dallas, Texas, thought to be a Hamas front group, collected $1.2 million in a single year. Since the executive order, the group has kept a low profile.
''We all know that some funds will slip through,'' says Khalid Saffuri of the American Muslim Council. ''But they are minimal.''
Hamas is hardly the monolithic organization often portrayed in the American media and by US officials.
In fact, as Harvard University researcher Sara Roy, a leading US expert on the Gaza Strip notes, Hamas is so sprawling, diverse, and has so little internal cohesion, ''that you might as well call it a nonorganization. If it was a sophisticated, well-structured institution, believe me, it would have been infiltrated by now and shut down.''
US Tries to Plug Hamas Pipeline
Few funds are needed to carry out a suicide attack with a bomb that can be made for $50.