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Israeli Court Orders 18 Hamas Officials Freed

The men are unlikely to be convicted on charges related to terrorism, according to the ruling.

September 13, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — An Israeli military court Tuesday ordered the release of 18 Hamas politicians, including the speaker of the Palestinian parliament and three Cabinet members, who were arrested after the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in June.

The court said the prosecution appeared to have little chance of winning conviction on terrorism-related charges. It noted that Israel had allowed the Palestinian parliamentary elections during which the defendants won their seats in January and had let the men serve for months before arresting them.

Israeli prosecutors were given two days to appeal the order that the detainees be released pending trial. The court left intact for now the charges against the Hamas officials.

Three other Hamas lawmakers were previously ordered freed but await a separate prosecution appeal today. Prosecutors said the outcome of that hearing would probably determine whether they withdraw indictments against all the Hamas members.

More than 30 Hamas lawmakers and Cabinet members were rounded up for their ties to the radical Islamic group, which is listed by Israel as a terrorist organization. The officials include Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer, parliament Speaker Aziz Dweik and Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek.

Tuesday's court decision came a day after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that his Fatah movement would form a coalition government with Hamas in hopes of ending a months-old international aid embargo led by the United States and the European Union. Israeli officials said the court decision was unrelated to the Palestinian agreement.

Israel began the wave of arrests in late June, alongside an army incursion into the Gaza Strip, after Cpl. Gilad Shalit was captured in southern Israel by Palestinian militants based in Gaza. Hamas fighters claimed shared responsibility for the June 25 cross-border raid.

Palestinian officials decried the arrest campaign as another blow to the struggling Palestinian Authority. Hamas won a parliamentary majority, and control of the government, during the January elections.

The cutoff of international aid, aggravated by Israel's decision to withhold about $50 million monthly in tax and customs duties that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, has left the Palestinian government broke and close to collapse. The worsening financial crisis and rising public discontent pushed Abbas and Hamas into the proposed alliance in hopes of getting aid flowing again.

In the latest fighting, meanwhile, Palestinian militants early Tuesday killed an Israeli soldier as the army moved into an area in the central Gaza Strip. Military operations in Gaza since the June kidnapping have left more than 200 Palestinians dead.

Later in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 14-year-old Palestinian boy in Bethlehem during an arrest raid, Palestinian media reported. An Israeli military spokesman said troops opened fire after crowds hurled rocks, Molotov cocktails and grenades against the soldiers, wounding two.


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