The exasperating traffic along Beirut's corniche creates a symphony of beeps and horns that drowns out even the sounds of construction surrounding the street. But the orchestra has quieted in recent days, even as young members of Etelaf Al-Khair, a charity that aims to coordinate relief operations for Palestinians in the occupied territories, stand in the middle of traffic, asking for donations.
Etelaf Al-Khair, a Saudi-based organization that began as a fund-raising drive, has been the subject of controversy in the United States. On November 12, 2008, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated the group a "terrorist organization" under Executive Order 1322.
But on Beirut's waterfront road, young men dressed in green jackets with the Etelaf Al-Khair logo on their backs are handing out fliers with images of bloodied Palestinian children and holding donation boxes. The fliers include a link to a humanitarian philanthropic organization established in Lebanon that aims to spread the awareness of Zakat, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which can be translated to giving "alms for the poor."
Meaning "purification" and "growth," Zakat refers to the amount of money that all financially-able Muslims are expected to pay to support the poor and needy -- in this case Palestinians living under siege in Gaza. The general idea is that the act of giving Zakat is a purification of one's possessions by putting aside a proportion of one's income for those in need.
Watch Etelaf Al-Khair collect money in Beirut:
The Treasury Department designated Etelaf al-Khair (also known as the Union of Good) as an organization created by the Hamas leadership to transfer funds to their organization from donors living abroad. According to the U.S. government, the organization is an umbrella group that works with over fifty Islamic foundations worldwide.
But here in Beirut and in many Arab capitals, millions have been watching disturbing images broadcast for the past two weeks on Arab networks chronicling Israel's brutal military offensive in Gaza. Most recently, pictures of children burned by Israel's apparent use of white phosphorous on civilians, a claim the Israeli military has refused to deny or admit, have looped on their screens.
In America, many Arabs and Muslims are hesitant to fulfill their religious obligations to help those in need by donating to Muslim charities, especially after the leaders of the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., The Holy Land Foundation, were convicted on charges of supporting a "terrorist" organization, money-laundering and tax fraud this November.
After a mistrial was announced in October 2007 when jurors were unable to agree on a verdict for four of the five accused leaders of the organization (shut down since 9/11), a new jury was seated this September that found the the foundation guilty of providing over $12 million dollars to Hamas and the charged its leaders with conspiracy and treason.
Still, drivers stuck in Beirut's notorious traffic are both less fearful and more inclined to throw a few bills into a box to support Palestinians in Gaza as opposed to the poor old lady missing teeth just a few blocks behind them, fulfilling not only Zakat, but their hopes to bring some relief to the subjects of the disturbing images broadcast daily on their television sets and to themselves.
While willing to give, some were wary of appearing on camera. One man in particular screamed at me and the young man holding the donation box, "I'll break your damn camera," he shouted. "Turn that thing off isn't it enough that we want to help you?"
Since 9/11, the Bush administration has worked hard to prosecute charities that send money to support Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and lobbied other governments to follow suit. They allege that funds sent to Hamas are used to strengthen their militias.
Despite a personal plea from President Bush, France has refused to ban a charity group known as The Comite de Bienfaisance et de Secours aux Palestiniens (CBSP - Committee for Welfare and Aid to the Palestinians), which was designated a terrorist entity in 2003 by the U.S. Treasury and reportedly belongs to the larger umbrella group known as the Union of Good (also known as Itilaf al-Khayr, Etelaf Al-Khair, and the Charity Coalition).
The U.S. government has also accused Etelaf Al-Khair or the "Union of Good" of having close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political opposition organization across many Arab states, but particularly in Egypt, where over one thousand members have been arrested since the war began for organizing demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak's regime.
The Brotherhood, unlike Hamas, is a political and Islamist movement that has created many political parties in Arab countries such as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan and most notably, Hamas, in the Palestinian territories.
Since the war began, opposition groups have gained seats in parliaments across the Arab world and challenged Arab regimes by capitalizing on the public's popular outrage against their leaders inability and perceived unwillingness to help Palestinians. Encouraged by Iran's accusations that the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian government are essentially guilty of treason, hundreds of thousands (if not millions of Arabs) are protesting on the streets and through the media against their governments, raising the question: Will this war contribute to regional security or undermine it?
While Israel and America have labeled Etelaf Al-Khair as a "terrorist entity," a pdf document that can be found on the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia's Web site, still includes I'tilaf Al-Khayr (yet another variation) as part of The Trust Fund for ESCWA's Regional Activities. The fund is explained on the site as a compliment to the regular budget of the Commission that aims to further the "regional cooperation that includes post-conflict reconstruction in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories," suggesting the United Nations still considers it a legitimate source of funding.
Here is an excerpt from the pdf found on ESCWA's Web site:
"The Forum resulted in a number of initiatives with Arab and local partners, namely: the Al Aqsa Fund/Islamic Development Bank for the rehabilitation in the Gaza Strip; the I'tilaf Al-Khayr to support the agricultural and agro-food products sectors; the Qatar Red Crescent for the development of human capacities in the health services sector; the Europal and I'tilaf al-Khayr for media campaigns and advocacy efforts to remove the separation barrier."
The humanitarian situation in Gaza is rapidly deteriorating. John Holmes, the United Nation's humanitarian chief, has repeatedly called the situation in Gaza a humanitarian crisis, but Israel and America's leaders have repeatedly denied these claims.
Several months before the war, Israel took unprecedented steps to ban organizations that they claim provide a cash flow to Hamas. Defense Minister Ehud Barak signed a decree that banned 36 groups that it believes work under the umbrella organization of the "Union of Good", denying the Palestinians living in Gaza from receiving much needed aid to lift them out of the humanitarian crisis brought on by Israel's economic siege on Gaza.
"There is no humanitarian crisis in the strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce..." Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni told reporters on a visit to Paris to discuss a possible ceasefire. "The humanitarian situation in Gaza is exactly as it should be."
Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor, arrived in Gaza on December 30 as part of a volunteer medical aid organization to assist Palestinian healthcare providers struggling to treat the growing numbers of injured civilians. Aware of Israel's ban on reporters entering Gaza, he sent a series of text message to colleagues that were forwarded across Europe and published in many newspapers in the Middle East and across the world.
One message read: "We are swimming in death, blood, and amputated victims. Many children. Pregnant women. I've never experienced anything so awful."
By imposing economic sanctions, preventing many organizations from sending money into Gaza, and destroying much of Gaza's infrastructure, Israel has worsened the living conditions of Palestinian civilians living in Gaza.
Etelaf Al-Khair's secretary general, Dr. Essam Yousef, wrote a long statement to the press on an independent electronic media website that claims to specialize in charity and humanitarian efforts. In it he expressed his regret that some of his institutions had been placed on terrorist lists and defended against these claims by suggesting investigations made in European countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain found no reason to ban his organization.
When the ground war is over, the media war will continue as each side attempts to blame the other and win the international community's support. But Hamas, like Hezbollah did in 2006, will likely maintain, if not, strengthen its political standing. Although Israel has dropped bombs on tunnels, shot missiles at Mosques and dropped leaflets encouraging Palestinians to surrender strategic information about Hamas' operations in hopes of removing Hamas from power, they may find they have done the opposite. As Arabs and Muslims the world over watch as thousands of Palestinian women and children are killed and injured, they will only be more angry and arguably more willing to throw a few thousand notes in donation boxes to support the poor Palestinians in Gaza. Despite Israel's attempts to frame this war as a just war on just Hamas, it has become, as thousands of headlines indicate, a "War on Gaza" too.
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