RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 16 — Nearly a year ago, Khalid Mishaal, a senior leader of Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization, attended a charitable fund-raising conference here where he talked at length with Crowni Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler.
According to a summary of the meeting written by a Hamas official, Mr. Mishaal and other Hamas representatives thanked their Saudi hosts for continuing “to send aid to the people through the civilian and popular channels, despite all the American pressures exerted on them.”
“This is indeed a brave posture deserving appreciation,” the Hamas officials said, the document said.
Today Mr. Mishaal, who was recently added to the United States Treasury Department list of what it calls terrorist financiers, controls a wing of Hamas that advocates violent confrontation with Israel, including suicide bombings.
As relations between the Israelis and Palestinians continue to deteriorate, in no small part because of recent Hamas-sponsored suicide bombings, Saudis have come under fresh scrutiny by American and European investigators here and in Israel for their political and financial support of the group.
At least 50 percent of Hamas’s current operating budget of about $10 million a year comes from people in Saudi Arabia, according to estimates by American law enforcement officials, American diplomats in the Middle East and Israeli officials. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Saudi portion of Hamas financing grew larger as donations from the United States, Europe and other Persian Gulf countries dried up, American officials and analysts said.
The estimated donations coming from Saudi Arabia — about $5 million a year — are a significant sum for Hamas but a very small portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow into Saudi charities each year, officials said. Nearly all the donations are given in cash, making it extremely difficult for Saudi and American authorities to track the money.
“It’s a ridiculous accusation; no Saudi government money goes to Hamas, directly or indirectly,” said Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign affairs adviser to Prince Abdullah. “Why on earth would we not stop this kind of funding? Why on earth would our crown prince say we do not want to support Hamas and then allow people to do this under the table?”
Saudi officials say their government’s support for Palestinian causes goes solely to the Palestinian Authority, about $80 million to $100 million a year.
Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, has denied that his government has financially supported Hamas or charities that serve as front organizations for Hamas. Prince Saud has said the government aids the Palestinian Authority because it is “the sole representative of the Palestinian people.”
The American Treasury secretary, John Snow, who is to arrive here on Wednesday on a trip through the Middle East and Central Asia to address the financing of terrorism and economic development, said a major theme was to press Palestinian and Saudi authorities to crack down on Hamas by choking off its funds.
During two days of meetings in Israel, which ended today, Mr. Snow conveyed a message of caution from the White House to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, urging him not to carry through with the threatened “removal” of Yasir Arafat and to halt construction of a barrier around Palestinian territory. But Mr. Snow aimed his strongest criticism at Hamas.
“The terror has to be stopped because the terror lies at the very heart of the region’s troubles,” Mr. Snow told Palestinian political and business leaders. “Hamas is clearly identified with terror. You have to go after it.”
He said the White House was also asking Syria to crack down on Hamas. Mr. Mishaal and other senior Hamas leaders are based in Syria.
The document that outlined Mr. Mishaal’s visit with the Saudis, in October 2002, was seized by the Israeli military during a raid in Gaza last December, and a copy was recently given to The New York Times by a former Israeli official. The summary is written in Arabic on paper with a Hamas letterhead and was translated into English by the Israeli military.
Four senior American law enforcement and diplomatic officials who reviewed the document did not dispute its authenticity, but declined to discuss its contents.
A Saudi official who was provided the document in Arabic and in English said it did not prove the Saudi government had contributed to Hamas, and he strongly criticized its contents as conveying a distorted view of the events.
“This document is trash,” the official said. “If the purpose of the document is to prove Saudi funding for Hamas, it fails miserably. There is nothing in it except the views and perceptions of Hamas members who attended this conference. The Israelis have made a big fuss about this document, and there is no there there.”
Several Saudi officials acknowledged that wealthy Saudi citizens have made sizable cash donations to Hamas. But they said the government is working to curb such contributions.
Saudi leaders, facing increasing pressure from the United States, say they have done much to stem the flow of donations to charities linked to terrorism. They have barred Saudi charities from sending money out of the country and have prohibited individuals from making anonymous wire transfers of cash.
A senior Treasury Department counter- terrorism official said Bush administration officials had repeatedly raised their concerns about Hamas financing with Saudi leaders. American officials have also begun to work closely with the Palestinian Authority on the issue, including meeting with Amin Haddad, governor of the Palestinian Monetary Authority.
Some terrorism and political analysts say Hamas is divided into two wings: one carries on social work, like hospitals and schools; a military wing engages in armed attacks and suicide bombings against civilians.
Other analysts say there is no longer a clear distinction between Hamas’s social and military operations. Members of Hamas, Al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad often work within one another’s organizations, they say, and all three groups were born of an older group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Earlier this month, after intense lobbying by the United States and Israel, the European Union placed the political wing of Hamas on its blacklist of terrorist organizations, which means the 15 members of the European Union can freeze Hamas’s assets.
In the Hamas document, drafted last November before the war with Iraq had begun, Hamas officials concluded that “among many echelons in Saudi Arabia, there is clear, tangible and conspicuous mistrust of the United States, particularly in view of its succumbing to the influence and incitement of the Zionist lobby.”
“They consider the expected American attack on Iraq as only the first step, which will have ramifications for everyone, especially for Saudi Arabia,” the document added.
A senior American diplomat in the Middle East pointed out that wealthy Saudis contribute at least 2 percent of their annual income to charitable causes, and that charities that assist hospitals, schools and orphanages in Gaza and the West Bank are flooded with donations from Saudi citizens. Names of charities often change, and it sometimes takes years to determine whether a charity is a front for Hamas, the official said. “It is considered rude in the kingdom to inquire about the motives behind a charity, and so Saudis don’t do it,” the official added.
The conference that Mr. Mishaal attended last year was held by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, a Saudi charitable organization based here. The charity’s American branch was incorporated in Virginia in 1992 by Abdullah bin Laden, a relative of Osama bin Laden. Members of the Saudi royal family have contributed large sums to the charity, which has publicly stated that one of its educational goals is to “arm the Muslim youth with full confidence in the supremacy of the Islamic system over other systems.”
Although the World Assembly, which is known as WAMY, has not been charged with a crime in the United States, law enforcement officials in India and the Philippines have accused it of financing terrorism in their countries.
According to the Israeli military, Hamas’s spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in a speech last month in Gaza, thanked the World Assembly and another Saudi charity for their continued financial support. On Sept. 6, Sheik Yassin narrowly escaped assassination when an Israeli Air Force jet dropped a bomb on a building in Gaza City where he and other Hamas leaders had gathered.
Saleh Sulaiman al-Wohaibi, the secretary general of the World Assembly, has adamantly denied that his charity provides contributions to terrorist organizations.
“WAMY has been publishing annual reports detailing expenses, humanitarian aid extended to different organizations,” Mr. Wohaibi said in an interview published on Sept. 11 in The Saudi Gazette. “Hence, an organization with such lofty aims and objectives cannot be deemed to have a relationship with terrorism.”