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Israel denies role in stalled release

Sameeh Hammoudeh was acquitted 12 weeks ago in the terrorism-related federal trial of Sami Al-Arian, but remains in jail under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The reason, according to federal prosecutors: The Israeli government won't let him pass from Amman, Jordan, to his home in Ramallah in the West Bank. So, he cannot be released from jail and deported until he gets an Israeli clearance.

"It involves diplomatic relations," said federal prosecutor Alexis Collins at a hearing, last week.

"Diplomatic negotiations with the Israelis are ongoing, very sensitive negotiations, which we hope to resolve as soon as possible," Steve Cole, a spokesman for the federal prosecutors in Tampa, said last week.

But officials in the Israeli Defense Force, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, the Israeli Office of the Prime Minister and the Israeli Consulate in Miami say their government has no issue with Hammoudeh's returning home.

"He has a Palestinian passport in good standing. He's clear as far as we're concerned," said Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Interior Ministry, who researched Hammoudeh's status for three days.

"As a Palestinian citizen in good standing with a current, valid passport, he can go from Amman to the West Bank. He does not need a visa or any kind of special permission or permit from the Israeli government to do this," she said.

"We can't say why he's not allowed in. It is not our issue," said Itamar Sharon, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force.

Both Haddad and Sharon said that the security force for the prime minister might have additional information.

But an official in that office, who asked not to be named, said Hammoudeh's return to the West Bank was "not an Israeli security issue." She said the Israeli Consulate in Miami would explain that it was "an American issue."

Ariel Roman, a consulate spokesman, said, "The government of Israel is not involved in why Hammoudeh is not being sent. It is an internal affair of the American government, not Israel."

Hammoudeh, Al-Arian and two other men were arrested in Tampa in 2003 and charged with conspiring to raise money for terrorist acts of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for killing hundreds of Israelis.

After almost three years in jail, Hammoudeh was acquitted of all charges in early December. He was to be deported as part of a plea deal in which he received probation, with no jail time, on unrelated tax charges and immigration violations. But he remains imprisoned.

Cole declined to comment Tuesday about what the Israeli government officials said, saying only: "We are working with ICE to return him home as quickly as possible. We are very eager to get this accomplished."

Last week, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody ordered Hammoudeh released but said he doubted ICE's compliance because it is not under his jurisdiction.

Hammoudeh's attorneys, Stephen Bernstein and Steve Crawford, told the judge that they would file a writ of habeas corpus saying Hammoudeh was being held illegally.

The judge said ICE officials had until March 7 to explain why they won't release him.

"If you want to see on the micro level what the war on terrorism can do to an innocent human being, look at my case," Hammoudeh told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday, in a telephone interview from the Manatee County Jail.