Criminalizing the Samaritans

About a month and a half ago, on May 26, Defense Minister Ehud Barak signed an order banning 36 international Muslim charities. A several-thousand shekel donation one group made to buy a wheelchair for a handicapped person was confiscated.

This order stems from these organizations' membership in a consortium called The Charity Coalition, which was founded in 2001 in order to give Palestinians humanitarian aid during the intifada. This coalition is suspected of funding Hamas, especially its religious outreach and civil infrastructure.

The Charity Coalition has an honorary president, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, one of the most important thinkers of the Islamic stream that combines the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood with modernity and progress. This stream opposes violence as a means of expanding Islam's influence, but permits suicide attacks in the territories, "because the Palestinians have no other weapon apart from their bodies."

No one needs to prove these charities' connections to the territories: Most of the organizations note it explicitly, and some even publish the number of the bank account where money can be deposited for donations.

In a telephone conversation with a representative of an organization established by Dubai prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashad al-Maktoum, the representative explained that the foundation does not engage in politics. "This is a charitable foundation that seeks to advance the welfare of the poor, development, and prosperity for Muslims and Arabs around the world," he said.

A representative of a Qatari organization, also on the list, said similar things. The two organizations had not heard about Barak's ruling, and asked for a faxed copy.

Exactly a month after the order was published, the Emir of Dubai's charity fund (also on the blacklist) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Palestine Information and Communications Technology Incubator. This incubator is run by Laith Kassis, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and seeks to expand Palestinian employment and investment opportunities in the fields of media and technology. The incubator receives funding from the United States Agency for International Development, Palestinian investors and European companies as well.

PICTI is not an "Islamist" incubator, and it does not belong to Hamas. It works with the Emir of Dubai's charity under a project the emir announced last year, budgeting $10 million to advance technological development in the Arab world. It is true that the incubator's chairman once lectured students at the Islamic University in Gaza about the project, but this does not mean the incubator is helping Hamas.

Legally, the technology incubator is also criminalized by the fact that it takes money from an organization that aids charities run by Hamas. An educational institution in Hebron that helps underprivileged children via money from an United Arab Emirates charity fund, and the Hamas summer camp which that fund also aids, both have become criminal institutions.

Some of the organizations that were declared illegal continue donating funds to Palestinian Authority charities that are not run by Hamas. These organizations also fund Arab institutions and non-profits inside Israel, which will also be criminalized if they continue to accept the funding.

For those who believe Hamas' development and expansion can be delayed, finding the money source is an important means. This is what Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have tried to do, along with arresting prominent businessmen from the opposition Islamic movements.

However, those countries are also facing the problem Israel faces. Charities have always managed to find hidden channels to receive the aid they need, and in contrast to terror organizations - Hamas is not considered a terror organization in the Arab countries - donating to charities is considered an integral part of the culture.

Israel has an even more difficult problem - its ability to supervise the cash flow to these associations is much more limited. Monies transferred from Arab countries to the territories go through an Israeli clearinghouse by means of three banks, and each time the name of one of the organizations appears, the computer spits out the data, but it is very easy to rename the organizations or transfer money in cash.

An activist from a Dubai-based fund explained to Haaretz that once the group approves a project, it transfers the money via a Jordanian bank. The Palestinian project director withdraws the money from an account in Jordan or the territories. The money enters the West Bank from Jordan either as cash or as a bank transfer. In practice, there is no way to oversee these transfers or to prohibit Jordanian bank branches from transferring money to these groups.

In the past, incidentally, Hamas enjoyed an unimpeded cash flow thanks to Iran's largest bank, Bank Melli, but that bank's European branches were sanctioned as part of actions against Iran. Bank Melli continues to operate hundreds of branches in Iran and in several Islamic countries, and it can also transfer donations to Hamas legally, as, most absurdly, it is not on the list of banned organizations in Israel.

Hamas' civil activity has no substitute in the Palestinian Authority. The small clinic in Gaza, the summer camps for children, the food distribution stations in the refugee camps, the enrichment classes for youth - the PA and the municipalities are having difficulty offering alternatives. Hamas' civil activity often takes place in private homes and even in schools administered by the PA Education Ministry. A senior source in the Hebron municipality told Haaretz, "We are pleased that the children have after-school activities, and we don't check whether the enrichment activities are run by a Hamas-affiliated teacher. We are also always glad to accept donations from organizations in Dubai, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia."

Banning these organizations does have declarative importance and it does open a front against Hamas, but it appears that practically speaking, it will be difficult to realize. Not only does Egypt's unsuccessful attempt to block the funding sources of the Muslim Brotherhood show this, but for many years the United States has failed to prevent - or even to monitor - cash transfers between Muslim groups inside its territory, some of which have reached Al Qaida.

In order to succeed, Israel needs to cooperate closely with the PA, which can at least supervise the movement of money in banks or establish a "clean fund" that receives money from permitted sources. However, the PA is yet to establish such a fund. The PA does randomly strike at Hamas institutions in the West Bank (in Gaza it cannot do anything), but it also cannot appear to be damaging charities and welfare groups, especially when reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is on the agenda. It would appear that until an effective way of combatting Hamas' infrastructure is found, the handicapped, the children and the mothers in the territories will continue to serve as a front for the Israeli effort.