By Chaim Levinson
A Shin Bet security service investigation reveals that China is a central financial channel for funding Hamas activity worldwide. Its February-March 2012 probe connected Chinese banks to the transference of money to Hamas prisoners. The Shin Bet seized numerous documents of the transfers and a list of accounts in which the money was deposited in China.
The key to discovering the network was the testimony of Amar Mer’i, a West Bank money changer who had previously transferred money from laborers from Gaza to their families, but had stopped this activity after pressure from the Palestinian Authority to cut his ties with Gaza. He told the Shin Bet he was contacted by a man known as Abu Othman, who had received his name and number from Mer’i’s counterpart in Gaza. Mer’i said he suspected Abu Othman was a Hamas operative.
The Shin Bet arrested Mer’i at a border crossing in February 2010 in possession of $126,000 and NIS 80,000 in cash. Mer’i received the money from two men from the village of Musmus in the Wadi Ara region.
Mer’i’s information led to a complicated web. His contacts from Musmus, Mohammed Agbaria and his cousin Mohammed Abu Shahab, would receive text messages from Abu Othman with an encoded telephone number of an Eritrean national. Agbaria would meet the Eritrean in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station area, take the money from him and pass it on to Mer’i, who would deposit it in the Bank of Palestine in Yabad, near Jenin. After that, Mer’i would receive an email message from Abu Othman with instructions on where to transfer the funds.
Most of the money would be transferred to accounts in the Bank of China. One transfer was made to a Citibank account in New York and another to a bank in Alabama. Several transfers were made to a HSBC bank in Hong Kong. Some money was transferred to accounts in India and Turkey.
Mer’i personally handed over some of the cash to Hamas activists in the West Bank as compensation for having served jail time.
The Shin Bet asked Mer’i why Abu Othman had to pay a mediation commission to an Eritrean national, couriers from Musmus and also to him. Mer’i said it didn’t make sense to him and he suspected the convoluted money route was illegal. He said the text messages also made him suspicious.
Mer’i said he had called Abu Othman to ask him if the money belonged to Hamas, but was told it did not. Altogether he carried out 40 money transfers, totalling $1.1 million.
Mer’i also transferred money to Brookside Agra, an Illinois-based company that sells fertilizers.
He told the Shin Bet interrogator that Abu Othman asked him on the phone if he could handle money the latter had in Sudan. Mer’i said he asked several money changers and the Bank of Palestine, but none of them had any contact with Sudan.
Mer’i said that, a few days before his arrest, he received a text message from Abu Othman with the names of three women and the sums of money to give them. These included $3,000 to Um Faiz, $3,000 to Fatma and $3,500 to Um Sa’ad. He said he called the three and set up meetings with each.
The money was intended as support to the families of Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons. Couriers Agbaria and Abu Shahab transferred funds to Hamas families as well. In one case, Hamas prisoner Ayman Abu Daud testified he had received $38,000 for serving time in an Israeli prison.
Abu Daud was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 36 years in prison after carrying out four shooting attacks in the Hebron area. He was released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner-exchange deal. In March 2012, he was arrested again and in 2013 he was deported to Gaza.
Before leaving for Gaza, Abu Daud testified in court. He said, “Ashraf Abu Merahia, a clerk in the al Noor association who had been in prison with me, called and told me he was transferring money to me as compensation for sitting in jail: $38,000.”
In April this year, Mer’i was convicted in a military court for illegal activity. He claimed the money transfers to China were legal and part of business, not terror activities.
The judge ruled that, due to the ban imposed on publishing the affair, it was not possible to ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt that all the transfers were illegal. However, the judge added, “There are many question marks over the manner of Abu Othman’s conduct – from the time he began transferring money through others to the defendant, to the latter’s arrest. The transfer method to the defendant indicates the funds were illegal and illicit. The money was transferred mostly in crafty, sly ways, using false code names, frequent changes of SIM cards in mobile phones to prevent tapping, and with the help of two Israeli citizens. This was meant to blur the illegal way in which the money was passed from Gaza to the defendant and through him to others (including the families of security prisoners).”
In August, Mer’i was sentenced to 28 months in prison and fined NIS 70,000.
The scope of Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s use of bank accounts in China was revealed in a lawsuit filed this summer in New York against the Bank of China for damages. The suit was filed by the family of Daniel Wultz, an American Jewish teenager who was killed in a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv in 2006. The legal battle uncovered the existence of a sophisticated international network to finance Palestinian terrorism.
The suit, which was filed with the encouragement of the Israeli government, revealed transfers of millions of dollars to the Bank of China in the previous decade. The suit has greatly embarrassed the authorities in China, which, according to the family, knowingly ignored Israeli warnings that a Chinese bank was being used to launder terrorist funds.
Under pressure from China, however, Israel backtracked and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly instructed officials not to testify in the case against the Bank of China.