Three Israelis Accused of Aiding Hamas in Kidnapping African Migrants

Netanya-area men suspected of assisting Hamas in transferring money to East Jerusalem and the West Bank; Palestinian and Israeli minor also arrested in connection with scheme.

Three Israeli men have been arrested on suspicion of aiding Hamas in abducting and extorting money from African migrants, it was revealed Sunday after a gag order was lifted on the case. The three men are suspected of serving as money couriers to transfer funds extorted from Eritrean migrants in Israel to Hamas branches in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Jerusalem District Court charged Eliran Mahfoud of Netanya and Yaakov Grad of Kfar Yona with kidnapping for the sake of murder or extortion. The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court charged a third suspect, Netanya resident Victor Siboni, with providing the means for carrying out crimes and infiltration.

Two other suspects were also arrested in the case: a Jewish Israeli minor who was released to house arrest, and a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, Louis Nasr al-Din, who is suspected of being the final link in transfering the money to Hamas. Din was served an affadavit on Sunday, and the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court extended his remand by five days.

The Jerusalem police, which handled the investigation in coordination with the Shin Bet security service, estimates that tens of thousands of dollars were transfered to Hamas organizations in this way.

Police suspect the deliveries were made regularly, saying that a man living in Sinai made contact with migrant workers from Eritrea and told them members of their family, who were on their way from Egypt to Israel, had been kidnapped and were in his custody. He would have the family members speak to the migrant workers over the phone in order to substantiate his claim, and tell them that in return for releasing their relatives, the migrant workers in Israel must give large sums of money to the two men, whom they must meet at Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station.

Following that, according to police, the men transfered the money from the Eritreans to East Jerusalem residents, who then delivered it to its final destinations.

Police said that after the suspects received the most recent sum of money, they waited in their homes for the next instruction. Two days later, Din contacted them and told them to meet him at his cellphone store in East Jerusalem, where they would hand him the money. This occurred a number of times, according to the indictment.

The money transfers were controlled by Emad Abu Arar, a Hamas operative in the Gaza Strip, and his emissaries in Sinai. Communications between Abu Arar and the Israeli men were conducted over the phone, using code words.

Police have evidence of six money transfers that were carried out in recent weeks, each ranging between $10,000 to $15,000. The most recent transfer, which was seized by police, was for about $13,000. In the most recent delivery, Grad and Mahfoud allegedly received $600.

During their interrogation, Grad and Mahfoud said they formed ties with Abu Arar about 20 years ago, when the latter worked near their houses. The suspects deny knowing that the money was transfered to Hamas, but police deny these claims.

Defense attorney Boaz Koenig told Army Radio that his client "sends his employee from Netanya to Jerusalem, and then nobody arrives. So he requests the taxi driver to guide him to East Jerusalem and that is how he parts ways with the envelope. My client acted innocently."

Din also denies the charges against him. His lawyer, Leah Tsemel, said, "He denies everything, absolutely everything, and claims that the amount of money in his possession is very small. He denies receiving money from these men."

Speaking of her client's criminal record, Tsemel added that "he was suspected in the past, investigated and released without results."

Sgt. Maj. Oshri Bartel, an investigator for the Jerusalem police, said Abu Arar is "a Hamas man that we know operates in the Gaza Strip. He calls his Jewish couriers and tells them, 'You'll come to pick up money.' At the same time, he calls the Eritreans, whose family members his men have kidnapped, and tells them to collect large sums of money."

Bartel added that legal proceedings would not be carried out against the Eritreans.