Palestinian charities help Hamas endure
Foreign donations to Islamic aid groups buoy Hamas during a devastating Western boycott.
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK
It's been more than six months since the coffers of the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority (PA) ran dry because of a freeze in international aid. Unable to pay for supplies, government ministries have ceased to function, and without salaries, civil servants have gone on strike.
But even though the Western boycott has rendered the Hamas government impotent, it hasn't stopped foreign money from reaching the militant group's network of social welfare affiliates such as schools, hospitals, and alms societies, say officials and analysts.
Now, amid a growing economic crisis that has dented Hamas's domestic standing, those charities are becoming even more critical – filling the vacuum of government services and preserving a core of support for political Islam. Islamist charities boast that they continue to get money from Muslim groups in the Persian Gulf, Europe, and the US.
"All charitable organizations affiliated with Hamas are still functioning," says Sheikh Yazeeb Khader, an editor of Hamas's West Bank newspaper who explained that Gaza institutions have benefited from money "brought across the border and not checked."
Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University, says, "Hamas wasn't able to get enough money to run the government, but they have been able to get enough money to spend on themselves. These organizations are living in a golden age, where they are badly needed. There is no other way to take care of those people."
For years, while its military wing dispatched suicide bombers to Israeli cities, Hamas built a network of Islamic social welfare groups.
Now, as the Middle East Quartet – the US, UN, European Union, and Russia – ramps up financial mechanisms to deliver aid money while bypassing the Hamas government, the resilience of the social charities is a reminder of how difficult it will be for the international pressure to dislodge the militants from the hearts and minds of Palestinians.
Particularly in Gaza's environment of poverty and religiosity "the Islamic charitable societies are well entrenched and they have great contacts in Western countries," says Sheikh Khader. "They play a role in diminishing the siege."
Any links between Hamas and its social affiliates are murky. None of the charities bear the party's name. Ask the managers of the Islamic social groups about support from Hamas, and they are quick to deny any political affiliation.
Before Hamas came to power, the ambiguity apparently was meant to insulate charities from being targeted by Israeli soldiers and from international financial regulators. But now the charities are coming under fire domestically by critics who charge that Hamas is using the groups to protect its own during the crisis.
"There is a lot of money in Hamas," says Abdel Nasser Najjar, a columnist for the Al Ayyam newspaper, a paper of the opposition Fatah party. "The problem now is that Hamas is only giving to their own people, or people who are close to the movement."
Still, says Mr. Ezbidi, the resilience of its charities in the face of the boycott makes "Hamas look like a group that has a social consciousness. And it works. And they are doing it successfully."
At the Al Farah society in Ramallah, questions about a link between the charity and Hamas were nervously denied by workers and clients. Israeli soldiers raided their offices several months ago, confiscating computers, welfare records, and eventually arresting director Teiysur Arure.
Recently released from jail, Mr. Arure assiduously denies any political affiliation. The same goes for Mohammad Tanbura, who heads the Gaza-based El-Salah society, which distributes backpacks and stationery to school children and helps with welfare cases.
"We have nothing to do with the government; we are a Palestinian organization that works for the social sector rather than the political sector," says Mr. Tanbura in a telephone interview. "This is not Hamas charity work. Our money is legal."
Ezbidi says most Islamic charities have some connection with Hamas, even if it's a 10 percent stake in the operations. "To really draw a line between what is considered Hamas and what is not is a difficult thing because Hamas has a broad constituency," he says. "It's general knowledge that Hamas is running healthcare clinics, hospitals, and subsidizing tuition. But it's done in an unpublicized forum."
In recent months, the caseload at Al Farah, which provides cash and coupons for purchasing clothes, has more than doubled. The office décor is spartan, save for a Koranic verse taped to the waiting-room wall: "If you need help, get it only from your God."
Balancing a cranky 14-month-old, a woman who uses the name Imm Amer waits to inquire about relief for seven children and a husband out of work for six months due to an illness. "We have no source of income whatsoever," she says. "Because of the crisis, the government is unable to pay the unemployed."
"When Imm Amer leaves here, she will say, Islam came to my rescue," Arure says. "Whoever gives money to a needy person makes that person his captive. Had America offered money to needy people, they would love it, too."