- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Facing threats of an aid boycott from the United States and Europe, Hamas officials say they are hoping to use a promise of generous assistance from Iran to squeeze more money out of Arab donors.

The strategy would play on the rivalries between Shi’ite Muslim-dominated countries such as Iran and the oil-rich Sunni Arab states, a Hamas campaign manager said.

“The Palestinian question is the common denominator among the Islamic sects,” Asad Farhat said. “It’s according to this common denominator that the credibility of both denominations are tested.”

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have committed to donating a total of $33 million to the Palestinian Authority, which faces a cutoff in Western funding when the Hamas-led government takes power.

A report, denied by Hamas, said last week that Iranian aid could reach $250 million a year. With Shi’ites from Iran poised to gain an unprecedented foothold among Palestinians, Mr. Farhat predicted, the Saudis will feel compelled to increase their offer.

“Saudi Arabia means to Muslims what the Vatican means for Christians,” he said. “It’s not easy for Saudi Arabia to have a minor role when a Shi’ite country is supporting us so much. The Sunnis will feel ashamed in front of their own population.”

Increased Iranian support also would help the Palestinian Authority boost its profile within the 57-member Organization of Islamic Conference.

The Palestinian government has received about $1.2 billion a year from foreign donors, most of them Western. Some analysts fear the shift to Arab donors could make the Palestinians turn their backs on the West and enter a Muslim alliance based on rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

With Tehran resisting international pressure to abandon its nuclear programs, financial support to the Palestinians helps open a second front of resistance and stirs the sympathies of Muslim countries, said Wael Husseini, a Palestinian legislator.

After two decades of chilly relations with Iran and the Palestine Liberation Organization because of its peace treaty with Israel, Hamas is trying to make up for lost time. Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal visited Tehran last month as a large aid package was reported.

“We and the Iranians share common values,” Mr. Husseini said. “Iran has a moral commitment to Palestinian society.”

Such a coalition, however, risks alienating Western investors interested in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Since Hamas’ won the Jan. 25 elections, the Palestinian stock exchange’s benchmark index has dropped 18 percent because of uncertainty about Hamas’ effect on the economy.

What’s more, it is not clear how well the Sunni-dominated Hamas can cooperate with the Shi’ite fundamentalist regime in Tehran, analysts say.

“Ideologically, Hamas and Iran contradict each other. They don’t trust each other to the end,” said Iyad Barghouti, a Ramallah-based analyst of Islamic movements. “If they are both under pressure, they will cooperate. The relations between Hamas and Iran are purely political.”

One Hamas legislator insisted that warm relations have lasted decades between Iran’s Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian opposition group that spawned Hamas in the 1980s.

“When the Islamic revolution erupted in Iran,” said newly elected Hamas legislator Ahmed Barakat Mubarak, “the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the first movements that supported it.”

When the Israeli army expelled 417 Hamas activists from the Palestinian territories into a southern Lebanese no-man’s land in 1992, the Islamists were refused refuge in most of the Arab world. But representatives of Iran offered necessities such as electric generators, Mr. Husseini said.

“There were field workers who told us this is a gift from the Iranian people,” he said last week. “The whole world had abandoned us. The only one that helped us was Iran. Now the same thing is happening again.”

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