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Palestinian Authority freezes Islamic charity accounts

A Palestinian woman, wearing a Hamas headband, protests in Gaza on Thursday over the freezing of Islamic charity bank accounts.
A Palestinian woman, wearing a Hamas headband, protests in Gaza on Thursday over the freezing of Islamic charity bank accounts.

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GAZA CITY (CNN) -- The Palestinian Authority said Thursday it has frozen bank accounts of Islamic charities and would administer the money itself, prompting Palestinian street protests.

Many of the demonstrators -- including women and children -- said they learned the accounts were frozen when they went to banks to collect welfare payments from the charities.

A Palestinian Authority official confirmed to CNN that the accounts of the organizations had been frozen although there has been no public announcement of the move.

Many of the organizations are affiliated with Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have claimed responsibility for deadly terror attacks on Israeli targets. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

The authority has been under growing pressure to crack down on Palestinian militant groups after the groups announced an end to their self-declared cease-fire last week. The announcement followed the stepping-up of Israeli targeted killings of Hamas leaders after a terrorist Jerusalem bus bombing that killed at least 21 people.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The demonstrators in Gaza also blamed U.S. President Bush, saying he had forced the Palestinian Authority to freeze the accounts.

Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian internal security chief, said the accounts of 39 charities, most of them administered by Hamas, had been frozen.

He said three of the organizations were administered by Islamic Jihad.

The organizations not only provide cash payments to the poor but also make available a range of services such as schools, orphanages and hospitals.

Dahlan said the Palestinian Authority will form a committee with representatives of the Social Affairs, Finance and Interior ministries to distribute the money from the frozen accounts.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas officials.

The United States has been pressing the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its obligations under the so-called road map for Mideast peace, backed by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

The peace plan, which Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to, aims to end the violence and establish an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

Palestinian security officials, meanwhile, detained several Hamas members in northern Gaza that they accused of firing a Qassam rocket Thursday into an industrial area of Askelon, Israel, according to Palestinian officials. There were no injuries or damage from the rocket, which fell in an open area, according to Israeli officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, responding to the rocket attack, told reporters, "I have instructed the security system to take all necessary measures to act against Hamas in order to avoid such actions."

Hours later, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired on a donkey cart in southern Gaza late Thursday, killing a Hamas militant and wounding three other Palestinians, Palestinian security sources and witnesses said. (Full story)

Also, two Israeli bulldozers guarded by tanks rolled into Gaza east of Beit Hanoun and began leveling an orange grove near the border. An Israeli military source said the operation was intended to clear the area where the rocket was launched.

In addition, the Palestinian Authority recently blocked off tunnels leading from Egypt to Gaza in an effort to stem the flow of arms to Palestinian militant groups. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Wednesday called on Palestinian factions to commit to a cease-fire on Israeli targets. (Full story)

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