RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has shut 92 charities linked to Hamas, his spokesman said yesterday, in an intensifying crackdown in the West Bank on the Islamic faction that seized the Gaza Strip and is challenging renewed peace talks with Israel.
The announcement came as Israel released 429 Palestinian prisoners to try to bolster Abbas and his Fatah party and build on momentum from last week's Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md. There, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said they would aim to reach a peace deal by the end of 2008.
Since Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in June, Abbas has moved systematically against Hamas supporters in the West Bank. His security forces have arrested hundreds, and he has issued tough regulations against money-laundering to cut off Hamas funding from abroad.
Abbas' information minister, Riad Malki, said the 92 Hamas-linked charity committees, formed by prominent local and religious leaders, collect money and distribute it to the poor, usually during religious holidays. They were ordered closed two weeks ago, he said.
Malki said the committees were infiltrated by Hamas in previous years of Fatah rule.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the closure of the charities would lead to hunger in the West Bank. "It's an attempt to weaken Hamas, but the Palestinian citizen will pay the price, because they benefit from these committees."
Hamas' network of charities, schools and clinics was a key factor in the rising popularity of the movement and contributed to its victory over Fatah in parliamentary elections in 2006. Fatah was also weakened by a deadlock in peace talks with Israel and widespread official corruption and mismanagement.
In the prisoner release, joy mixed with tears as buses carrying the freed inmates, most from Abbas' Fatah movement, rolled into his walled headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Many were arrested during the Palestinian uprising years ago.
Ex-gunman Tareq Abu Lail, 24, said he hoped for peace but was not optimistic. Sentenced to eight years, he got out after three and said he was proud of his role in the uprising.
His father, Yousef, 49, disagreed: "The uprising is dead. We hope Annapolis will be the start of peace."