Hamas Victory Is Built on Social Work

Times Staff Writer

For a basic tooth filling and crown, the price difference is negligible: $17 at a regular clinic, $15 at Al Quds Clinic. The real distinction is in the extras.

"It's safer to come to an Islamic place, where you can find a doctor who's not only a good dentist, but a good Muslim," said Najwa abu Mustafa, 24, who sat one recent afternoon in the sunny waiting room with several other women, shrouded in black veils but for the thin openings around their eyes. "You're putting yourself in God's hands."

The small clinic on the edge of one of the Gaza Strip's biggest refugee camps is one of hundreds of medical centers, food banks, summer camps and schools across the West Bank and Gaza operated by Islamic charities, many of them linked to the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its Arabic acronym Hamas.

The militant group's recent victory in parliamentary elections is testimony in part to its long track record on the streets. Its services are often perceived as being of higher quality and less tainted by corruption than the cumbersome and often ineffective social network operated by the Palestinian Authority controlled until now by Fatah.

The work Hamas does at home is an often-overlooked key to the domestic popularity of an organization most known elsewhere for killing. The United States has declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and U.S. and Israeli counter-terrorism experts have cited numerous instances in which Al Qaeda and Hamas drew funding from international Islamic charities. Hamas also reportedly has used schools and hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza to store weapons and plan attacks.

Faced with U.S. and European measures aimed at preventing charity funds from being funneled into terrorism, Hamas has erased many of its traceable financial links to the humanitarian programs. But Hamas figures remain on the boards and in management of the programs, which analysts say have become an essential component of the group's public support.

"Hamas has been very good at compartmentalizing their activities -- where they have a soup kitchen, for example, they simply give soup, nothing more," said Mouin Rabbani of the International Crisis Group, which studied Islamic social activism in the occupied territories. "But it all fits into a broader pattern of popular mobilization and becomes another way of seeking support for the organization."

Over the last two decades, several large Islamic charities have come to be closely associated with Hamas, including the Mujamma Islami network, Al Salah Society, the Islamic Center and the Islamic University of Gaza. But the International Crisis Group said there was little "substantial evidence" that Islamic welfare institutions "systematically divert" funds to support terrorist activity.

"Hamas doesn't have much in the way of resources, but they have a big network of charity working in order to reduce the suffering of the Palestinian people," said Sami abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group in Gaza. "People feel the credibility of Hamas, and its ability to make change through the charity organizations that it runs."

In Gaza, Al Salah Society's school for 1,000 orphans and other youngsters in the teeming town of Deir al Balah stands in sharp contrast to the crumbling concrete and dusty streets around it, a fenced-in oasis of palms and neat classrooms.

"Muslims are the best nation created in the world," says a banner hanging outside the school, next to another that says, "Those who learn more earn a higher degree in paradise."

Al Salah's director, Ahmad Kurd, was recently elected mayor of Deir al Balah, and Hamas scooped up two of the region's three parliamentary seats in the January elections.

"In 1994 there was an Israeli operation which destroyed several Palestinian houses [of families of suspected militants] in one of the poorest neighborhoods," Kurd said. "I had to meet with the Israeli commander, and he asked me, 'Why are you supporting and helping those victims who lost their homes?'

"I told him, 'The Red Crescent is helping, the Churches United organization also gives some help to them, the Catholic Relief organization, the United Nations. And Al Salah Society is there as well. Is it forbidden?' And he was not able to respond to that."

When Israeli forces launched a major incursion into the southern Gaza refugee camp of Rafah in 2004, leaving nearly 1,500 residents homeless, Al Salah sent fundraisers with megaphones down the streets, going door to door, standing on street corners and outside the mosques. Women were asked to drop their gold necklaces into the collection boxes. Poor families gave sacks of rice. Al Salah collected $1 million worth of food, valuables and cash in Gaza, one of the poorest places in the Middle East.

Yet Kurd said it would be a mistake to think Hamas won the votes because of its charity work.

"The people are getting a lot more money from America, from the international community. The international donors distributed perhaps $6 billion in the last 10 years. The Islamic charity organizations didn't pay out 1% of that money," he said.

Palestinians associate U.S. aid with Washington's support for Israel, he said. "The Palestinian feels, 'You give me that money, and you kill me. You give me money, and you destroy my house. You give me money, and you send planes to kill our kids.' "

Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman, said international aid had focused on public works projects but had done little to provide direct help to the poor, or to those families that have lost a breadwinner in the conflict with Israel.

"Unfortunately, the Western side has donated for projects like cleaning the streets or painting the walls, but they didn't give anything for the care of orphans," he said. Some of the most controversial programs operated by the Muslim charities provide stipends, housing and direct financial aid to the families of suicide bombers.

In the narrow alleyways of the sprawling refugee camp at Deir al Balah, hundreds of families get cash payments of $40 to $100 a month from Mujamma Islami and Al Salah, along with meat, beans, flour and eggs.

"We would be completely destitute without this help," said Ataf Ostaz, 41, who has nine children and whose husband died of a stroke two years ago. "Naturally, we gave our votes to Hamas, because they are the ones who touch our need."

The unlikely mix of services offered at Al Quds Clinic -- pediatrics, maternal healthcare, orthodontics and post-surgical care -- is no accident. Mujamma Islami, which opened the center in October 2002, conducted a survey of the clinics already operating in Khan Yunis.

"We did studies and reached the decision that some services are not good enough in government hospitals, and so we decided to offer these services ourselves," said clinic director Atiya Abumoaamar. "The point is that the public hospitals are very, very cheap, so where we compete with them is not in prices, but in quality."

At the same time, fees generally are substantially lower than those at private clinics.

Caseloads now reach up to 400 patients a month, and if there is a profit at the end of the month, Abumoaamar splits it with doctors and office staff. Otherwise, they work without salary as volunteers. The effort has been judged such a success that two more clinics are opening soon, with funding from the Saudi-based World Assembly of Muslim Youth.

"If the international community will just give it a chance and will not isolate it, if donors don't freeze the funds, if the Arab countries help make some solution, I guarantee that Hamas will do a better job of running this society," Abumoaamar said.

But some Palestinians point out that there is a big difference between operating schools and clinics and running a government for 3 million people.

"The Palestinian Authority has to reach everyone, and in a situation of closures, unemployment reaching unprecedented figures, and in an environment in which you are constantly being undermined, these services are obligatory," said Issam Younis, director of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza City.

"Hamas has done its homework. Over the years, they have established very good social services, they have the maximum use of the mosque," he said. "And it will be good to have Hamas in the government. Welcome! But think of the situation.

"With Abu Mazen [current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], the international community transferred only $350 million of the $1 billion they were supposed to send for 2005. This is with the good guys in charge, not the terrorists!" he said. "Imagine how things will be with Hamas."

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