JERUSALEM - Shopping malls. Schools. Medical centers. Charities. Orphanages.
Soup kitchens. These are the latest targets in the campaign the Israeli military
is waging against Hamas in the West Bank.
Israeli military officials have identified Hamas' civilian infrastructure
in the West Bank as a major source of the Islamic group's popularity, and have
begun raiding and shutting down these institutions in cities like Hebron, Nablus,
Last week, troops focused their efforts in Nablus, raiding the city hall and
confiscating computers. They also stormed into a shopping mall and posted closure
notices on the shop windows. A girls' school and a medical center were shut
down in the city, and a charitable association had its computers impounded
and documents seized.
This policy, officials say, is meant to deny the Islamic group, which is committed
to Israel's destruction, the ability to use these institutions as a pipeline
by which money is channeled to finance attacks on the Jewish state. But the
main goal of this campaign is to stem Hamas' growing popularity in the West
Bank, and ensure it does not seize control of the area as it did in Gaza a
year ago, when its forces vanquished the more moderate Fatah movement headed
by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In Gaza, Hamas was able to capture the hearts and minds of the residents not
just because it offered an alternative to the corruption-tainted Fatah leadership,
but also because its network of schools, clinics, summer camps, after-school
activities, and charitable associations provided impoverished Gazans with the
type of institutions and welfare alternatives that the Palestinian Authority
As part of the campaign, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently issued
orders outlawing 36 NGOs that function abroad because he said they were raising
money for Hamas. According to estimates by defense officials, anywhere between
$120 million to $200 million has been funneled to institutions associated with
Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank over the last year. The money has come from
institutions in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf States, Europe, South America,
and the U.S.
In recent months, the army has also closed down an orphanage, a bakery, and
other institutions in Hebron, which Israel believes are associated with Hamas.
In Gaza, meanwhile, Israel and the Islamic group are observing a truce, but
this does not pertain to the West Bank where the Israeli military operates
Writing in the daily Ha'aretz newspaper this week, columnist Gideon
Levy calls the move against Hamas-related institutions "ludicrous."
Residents of the West Bank, he concludes, "cannot be simultaneously imprisoned,
prohibited from earning a living and offered no social welfare assistance while
we strike at those who are trying to do so, whatever their motives. If Israel
wants to fight the charitable associations, it must at least offer alternative
services. On whose back are we fighting terror? Widows? Orphans? It's shameful."
By moving against Hamas institutions, Israel runs the risk of increasing the
popularity of the Islamic movement and, at the same time, undermining that
of Abbas and his Fatah Party, who are perceived, correctly or not, as the intended
beneficiaries even if unwitting and unwilling ones of this policy.
What's more, Hamas' popularity does not derive only from its network of schools
and charities, but is also very much a direct function of the deep disillusionment
among the Palestinian people with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and its
inability to deliver on its key promises, the central one being an independent
state in the West Bank and Gaza. Some in Israel argue that the best way for
Israel to block Hamas and bolster Abbas would be to halt construction in Jewish
settlements in the West Bank, ease travel restrictions there and, most importantly,
ensure there is progress in negotiations with the Palestinian leader.
Many Israeli ministers are highly skeptical about Abbas' ability to deliver
on any peace deal, and so put little store in the negotiations that were renewed
last December. Some ministers have even called for the release of Fatah leader
Marwan Barghouti, who is serving several life terms in an Israeli jail after
being convicted for involvement in attacks in which Israelis were killed during
the second Intifada uprising.
Barghouti, they say, has the political standing among Palestinians that will
be required to pull off a deal with Israel, and could draw enough support to
wrest back the agenda from Hamas. For now, though, Barghouti remains in jail,
talks between a weak Abbas and an embattled Ehud Olmert are limping along,
money continues to flow to Hamas, and its popularity remains intact.
(Inter Press Service)