By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel freed a Palestinian correspondent for Al Jazeera from custody on Monday, saying he had confessed to links with Hamas and had received a suspended prison sentence.
Samer Allawi, a West Bank native and head of the Arabic satellite station's Kabul bureau, said after his release that his contacts with Palestinian Islamists were part of his work as a journalist.
Allawi, who was arrested on August 9 at the border crossing to Jordan after visiting family in the city of Nablus, accused Israel of using him to "extort" Al Jazeera.
The Qatar-based station's Jerusalem bureau has occasionally sparred with Israeli officials who accused it of bias.
Israel said Allawi was convicted by a military court of "conspiracy to provide a service for an outlawed organization" but, under a plea bargain, received a suspended 8-month jail term and was free to return to Afghanistan.
According to Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency, Allawi confessed to enlisting in Hamas in Pakistan in 1993 and maintaining contacts with the group in Syria and the Gulf.
"Allawi agreed to carry out military or organizational activity as required by Hamas," the Shin Bet said in a statement.
This, the Shin Bet said, included bids to "exploit" Al Jazeera and bolster Hamas "by criticizing American actions in Afghanistan and voicing support for the Palestinian 'resistance.'"
Hamas, which won a Palestinian legislative election in 2006 and seized control of Gaza in a brief civil war a year later, is designated terrorist group by Israel, the United States and European Union.
Though it enjoys support from Muslims abroad, Hamas says its operations are limited to Israel and occupied Palestinian territory.
"There was no evidence against me," Allawi told Reuters upon returning to the West Bank. "The whole arrest episode was a charade aimed at extorting Al Jazeera. I was not the target."
He met with Hamas, Allawi said, because "I meet people everywhere from whom I can get the news."
The plea bargain included a 5,000 shekel ($1,351) fine, Allawi said. The Shin Bet would not comment on the amount.
Al-Jazeera's Jerusalem bureau, run by an Israeli Arab, was briefly boycotted in 2008 by government officials who accused it of reporting in favor of Hamas. The Islamists' Palestinian rivals in the secular Fatah movement have made similar complaints. Al Jazeera denied wrongdoing.
(Writing by Dan Williams)