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Mar 2, 8:42 AM EST

Israel says it busted Gaza smuggling ring helping Hamas


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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel said on Monday it has busted an Israeli-Palestinian smuggling ring that funneled iron, electronic equipment and other prohibited materials to Gaza, bypassing Israel's stringent border security to help Hamas rebuild its militant infrastructure following last year's war.

Nine people in the ring, among them three Jewish Israelis who own companies that sell the materials, were charged with assisting an enemy in wartime, terror financing and fraud. The remaining ring members were said to be Palestinians from Gaza.

Hamas, a bitter enemy of Israel's, suffered heavy losses in the 50-day war, in which Israel carried out some 5,000 airstrikes throughout Gaza. Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Israel. The fighting killed more than 2,200 Palestinians and 72 people on the Israeli side.

Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007 but is suffering from international isolation and a cash crunch, has been trying to rebuild the coastal territory since the fighting ended.

Israel's internal security agency said Monday the materials were smuggled on trucks through Kerem Shalom, the main cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza. The materials were listed as destined for straw companies and were hidden among other goods which are permitted to enter Gaza. It said the goods were sourced by and delivered through Palestinian middle men.

"In this way, large amounts of materials bought in Israel and smuggled to the Gaza Strip systematically and over time made their way to Hamas' military infrastructure," the Shin Bet said in a statement.

The agency said at least $375,000 was paid to the Israeli players and that materials worth 30 million dollars were purchased under the scheme.

Zion Amir, a lawyer for one of the Israelis, whose name wasn't made public, said his client denied the charges. There was no immediate reaction from the other defendants.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group was not aware of the claims, which he said Israel was using to justify its blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group, and cases of Jewish Israelis collaborating with the group are extremely rare.

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Fares Akram contributed from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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