DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – A U.S.-backed campaign against Hamas is being expanded to include Islamic charities that helped propel it to power, Palestinian, Israeli and Western officials said.
Salam Fayyad, whom Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appointed prime minister after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, aims to reduce the influence of Hamas and its welfare arm and to build an alternative, government-run social service system using Western and Arab funds.
Mahmoud al-Habbash, Fayyad’s social affairs minister, said the government had a right to target Islamic charities that “help Hamas in their fight against the authority.” Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006, has challenged the legality of Fayyad’s government.
Fayyad’s government is expected to approve new anti-money laundering rules that one official said would include a ban on “anyone bringing in money illegally.” Another official said the rules, drafted by the Palestinian Monetary Authority, could be applied to funds for Hamas, its allies and others.
“We are not competing with Hamas,” said Riyad al-Malki, Fayyad’s information minister. “What we are trying to do is … set up a network of social security where we will be able to respond to the basic needs of families, to connect these families to the official system, and to prevent them from looking for alternatives from the Hamas network.”
A senior Israeli official said the campaign was meant to “influence public opinion ahead of new elections.” To try to break Hamas’s hold on Gaza, Abbas has proposed holding early elections but Fayyad said doing so was not feasible for now.
The bank accounts of the al-Salah Association, one of the largest Islamic charities based in the squalid Deir el-Balah refugee camp in Gaza, were frozen earlier this month by Palestinian banks after the U.S. government designated it a “key support node for Hamas.”
“They (the banks) said they were sorry but that they had no choice,” said Abu Ahmed, an al-Salah official who declined to give his full name for fear he would be added to the U.S. government blacklist.
Another large Gaza service provider, the Islamic Charity, said it emptied out most its own bank accounts after receiving warnings that it could be targeted next.
Musa Abu Hussein, secretary-general of the Islamic Charity, said he was having trouble bringing in funds from abroad but had enough to pay recipients for now.
Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury official now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said a crackdown on Islamic charities in Gaza could have a large impact.
“Hamas has multiple ways to raise and launder funds but none are as effective as the social welfare structure. The Hamas charity system is the secret to its success,” Levitt said.
The idea of creating an alternative welfare network to replace Hamas’s system — what U.S. officials refer to as “charitable backfill” — was under discussion in the run-up to the 2006 election that Hamas won.
While economic sanctions have been a centerpiece of the U.S.-led campaign against Hamas since it came to power, al-Salah is the first so-called “Hamas-related charity” to be added to the U.S. government blacklist since August 2003.
U.S. officials declined to say what triggered the August 7 decision to target al-Salah. Israeli officials and Western diplomats said the United States acted in close coordination with Fayyad’s government. Israeli officials said they sought a crack down on al-Salah more than four years ago to no avail.
“There was a decision by the Fayyad government to find ways to reduce financial support for the (Islamic charity) system in Gaza and the West Bank,” said a senior Israeli official.
Established in 1978, al-Salah runs two schools and four medical centers and provides support each month to the families of more than 10,000 Palestinian children who have lost their fathers. Abu Ahmed said the programs are open to all poor Palestinians, regardless of faction.
“Now all this will stop,” Abu Ahmed said. “I don’t know what I will tell them. I don’t know what to say.”
Abu Ahmed said the United States has been aware of al-Salah’s activities for years but chose to act now “to help the Ramallah government. It’s a political decision.”
He said he feared the banking sanctions would be devastating for al-Salah because some 80 percent of its annual budget, estimated at $5 million, comes from donors abroad using the banking system. Al-Salah also pays its beneficiaries by check.
“I have my life by al-Salah. That’s all we get,” said 42-year-old Sabah Abu Muhammed, whose family has received support for 13 years. She was skeptical Fayyad would step in with alternative assistance, saying: “Up until now, I haven’t received anything from the government.”