- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A U.S.-led funding squeeze, which has paralyzed the Hamas-led Palestinian government, has had the unintended effect of bolstering the militant group’s network of schools, hospitals and alms societies.

Foreign donations, often consisting of cash in suitcases smuggled across the border, have permitted Hamas’ vast social-welfare network to thrive, say officials and analysts.

“All charitable organizations affiliated with Hamas are still functioning,” said Sheik Yazeeb Khader, an editor of Hamas’ West Bank newspaper. He said the charities in Gaza have especially benefited from money “brought across the border and not checked.”

For years, while Hamas’ military wing dispatched suicide bombers to Israeli cities, the group’s civilian wing quietly built up a grass-roots following with its network of Islamic social-welfare organizations.

The charities went far beyond anything established by the secular government of Yasser Arafat and helped give Hamas the support needed to oust Arafat loyalists in January elections and take power in March.

Unable to pay for supplies, government ministries have since ceased to function, and without salaries, civil servants have gone on strike.

The charities, however, openly boast that they continue to get money from Muslim communities in the Persian Gulf, Europe and the United States.

“These organizations are living in a golden age, where they are badly needed. There is no other way to take care of those people,” said Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Birzeit University.

The links between Hamas and its social affiliates are kept deliberately murky.

None of the charities bear the Hamas name. Ask the managers about support from Hamas, and they are quick to deny any political affiliation.

Amid continuing economic hardship, the charities are coming under fire from some who charge that Hamas is protecting its own.

“There is a lot of money in Hamas,” said Abdel Nasser Najjar, a columnist for Al Ayyam, a newspaper 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.”

At one Islamic charity in Ramallah, the Al Farah society, questions about Hamas make relief workers and clients — a group of women in head scarves or veils — go stiff.

Israeli soldiers raided the organization’s offices several months ago, confiscating computers, welfare records, and eventually arresting director Teiysur Arure.

Recently released from jail, the director denies any political affiliation.

The same goes for Mohammad Tanbura, who heads the Gaza-based El-Salah society, which distributes school supplies and helps destitute families survive.

“We have nothing to do with the government, we are a Palestinian organization that works for the social sector rather than the political sector,” Mr. Tanbura said. “This is not a Hamas charity work. Our money is legal.”

Birzeit University’s Mr. Ezbidi said 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 said. “It’s general knowledge that Hamas is running health care clinics, hospitals and subsidizing tuition. But it’s done in an unpublicized forum.”

In recent months, the case load at Al Farah’s alms house has more than doubled under the weight of an aid boycott that has left some 140,000 civil servants without pay and the poor without welfare checks.

“If the government isn’t providing for us, then Islamic institutions are providing for us,” said Mr. Arure, the director. “People have crossed the red line, they have no money whatsoever.”


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