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Chicago Tribune: Israel targets West Bank charity sites

Islamist outlets shut by crackdown deny backing Hamas or spreading agenda

By Joel Greenberg

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HEBRON, West Bank—For more than 40 years, the Islamic Charitable Society in Hebron has provided social services to residents of this volatile West Bank city, helping orphans and needy families. Its new school for girls was to open next month, a mall it operated housed shops and offices, and it ran two bakeries and a sewing shop.

But in a series of raids in recent months, the Israeli army ordered the mall vacated and emptied the charity’s main warehouse. The school gates were welded shut, school buses were seized and the sewing shop was closed in a nighttime sweep in which Israeli soldiers, their faces darkened by camouflage paint, stripped the place bare.

The raid was part of a crackdown against business enterprises, schools and welfare groups in the West Bank that Israeli military officials say raise money and mobilize public support for the militant Islamic movement Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel and whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction.

Fighting ‘civilian Hamas’

The army campaign began this year in conservative Hebron, where Hamas has a strong following, and was extended this month to Nablus, where soldiers ordered the closing of a five-story mall and raided city hall, whose elected municipal council is controlled by Hamas.

The campaign against Islamist institutions in the West Bank comes as Israel’s military and Hamas’ armed wing are observing a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas routed the Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last year.

The West Bank government of Abbas shut down dozens of West Bank charities said to have links with Hamas late last year; the Israeli crackdown has had the practical effect of complementing the Palestinian Authority’s campaign.

“The army has realized that the battle is not only against terrorism that is visible for all to see but against those who generate the funds needed to build bombs and buy guns and ammunition,” said Oron Mincha, a spokesman for the army’s Central Command.

“The campaign now is against the civilian Hamas, which provides the ideology for Palestinian youth to believe in holy war and the destruction of Israel,” he said.

Groups deny claims

But the Islamic charities and welfare groups involved vehemently deny promoting any militant agenda, insisting they are grass-roots social organizations formed to fill gaps left by inadequate government services. Some Palestinians see the Israeli crackdown as part of a grander scheme.

“This is part of an Israeli strategy to destroy the infrastructure of Palestinian society and make it needy, unable to help itself and subject to foreign agendas,” said Samira al-Khalaika, a Hebron lawmaker affiliated with Hamas.

Established in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising, Hamas has always maintained both an armed wing responsible for fighting Israel and a social welfare network that runs health clinics, orphanages, soup kitchens, kindergartens and schools. Those institutions have boosted the group’s popularity and solidified its reputation for honesty and public service — in contrast with Fatah, which has been plagued with corruption.

Yet not all Islamic welfare groups are linked to Hamas, and critics of the Israeli campaign say it is misdirected, targeting vital supports of Palestinian society.

The mall ordered closed in Nablus is owned by a finance company accused by the Israelis of raising money for Hamas. Computers, furniture and documents have been seized from the company’s offices, and on Monday, 14 members of its board were detained.

The Islamic Charitable Society in Hebron, the largest in the West Bank, was founded in 1962 under Jordanian rule, and before most of Hebron was transferred to the control of the Palestinian Authority it was licensed by the Israeli military government .

Now the Israelis designate the society — which runs orphanages and schools in the Hebron area — a banned organization because of its alleged links to Hamas.

Teaching ‘hatred’

At the Al-Huda mall in downtown Hebron, which was ordered vacated by April 1, most of the premises are empty. A dress shop, cosmetics store and computer outlet are shuttered. The office of a physical therapist and a lawyer are vacant, with signs directing clients to other locations. The society’s hangarlike warehouse, which contained clothing, shoes and school supplies for needy students and their families, is also bare. Rasheed Rasheed, a teacher who works for the group, said soldiers worked a full day to load several trucks with goods, also hauling off industrial refrigerators used to store meat for the orphanages and the poor.

At the Al-Rahma bakery, where soldiers seized equipment, walls were broken and a large oven was heavily damaged. Rasheed said the soldiers set fire to the oven when they couldn’t carry it off.

Mincha, the army spokesman, denied that any property had been vandalized, suggesting that the damage had been staged, but he confirmed the confiscation of goods and closure of the school and building complexes owned by the society.

Rasheed emphatically denied that the Hebron charitable society had any links to Hamas, noting that it was established well before the militant group even existed. He said the schools follow the curriculum of the Palestinian Authority.

“The only curriculum of incitement and hatred is the Israeli checkpoints, the beating and killing of Palestinians,” Rasheed said. “That is what teaches Palestinian children hatred. We don’t have to.”