Reports are coming from Gaza that Hamas militants forced the Palestine Bank to allow the newly elected chairman of "Friends of the Patient Society", a Gaza charitable organization that provides medical services, to withdraw $270,000. The bank's manager was held at gunpoint as he counted the money. In response, the Palestine Bank has closed all of its branches in Gaza.
Hamas recently imposed a new board of directors on Friends of the Patient and issued a demand for the organizations funds. Hamas officials claim they are only enforcing the law as adjudicated by a Gaza judge. This episode is the latest in Hamas efforts to tighten its grip on NGOs in Gaza in order to bend them to the will of Hamas supporters. This started two years ago when Hamas became the de facto government in Gaza. As the Israeli blockade continues, more NGOs have become active in Gaza, offering humanitarian aid to relieve the poverty and the devastation in the region.
The Hamas Ministry of Interior is reluctant to meddle with international NGOs because this may result in ending their operations in Gaza and the much needed aid they provide. But Hamas wants these NGOs to "coordinate" their relief efforts with Hamas in an effort to ensure that its sympathizers get a piece of the aid pie. International organizations held firm and told Hamas explicitly, "if you try to interfere in our work, we will leave the Gaza Strip, which will only harm the anguished people of Gaza." CHF International shut down their offices in Gaza late last year when Hamas attempted to undermine their work. There were reports that Hamas policemen broke into their offices and confiscated computers and data.
But Hamas is more active in bullying local charities; small local organizations that receive international aid and subcontract with larger charities to distribute food stamps and initiate small income-generating projects. The Hamas tactic I have observed is: Hamas forces these local organizations to hold elections to their board of directors and Hamas taps its supporters to seek election on these boards. If the local NGO refuses to be hijacked by filling the board with Hamas loyalists and supporters, they will be forced to shut down. The first organization that Hamas bullied in this way was Albayader, a local NGO that Hamas felt was insufficiently sympathetic to Hamas's supporters. Another means Hamas uses is taking the organization to court and forcing them to comply with Hamas's wishes. Since Hamas appointed all of the Gaza judges after it took power in 2007, it is impossible to find an impartial judge.
With Hamas sympathizers on the boards of NGOs, Hamas supporters are assured assistance and Hamas ensures loyalty by appearing that it is in full control of all social and humanitarian organizations in Gaza. For example, Gaza mosques now offer food stamps to those who show up to all prayers. Essentially Hamas forces Gazans to look to local religious leaders for needed assistance.
Another strategy that Hamas uses is encouraging its supporters to start organizations with secular names that appeal to international donors in an attempt obscure the pipeline of support to their sympathizers. This makes it difficult to vet legitimate charities in Gaza when international donors want to avoid funneling aid through Hamas or its proxies.
Hamas also started its own bank in Gaza because most Palestinians banks do not conduct business with Hamas or its many entities because they could be punished by the United States. Thus the National Bank was launched in Gaza making it the only bank that Hamas uses for its financial transactions. In addition to managing the payroll for employees of the Hamas government, the bank gives special Islamic-compliant loans to leaders of Hamas to invest in real-estate. Much of Gaza's prime real estate was bought by Hamas leaders using loans issued by this bank. The National Bank was black listed by the United States last week.
The Palestinian government in Ramallah sends medical supplies to Gaza but Hamas controls the shipments and takes credit for delivering aid when in fact it is only diverting the shipments into its own warehouses. A director of a very prominent Palestinian charity serving disabled people in Northern Gaza confided in me that the only reason he can work without the intimidation of Hamas is because his brother-in-law, a high-level Hamas functionary, provides him cover. Hamas in Gaza needs to realize that humanitarian aid should not be subjected to their short-sighted political maneuvering. Israel's blockade already makes it hard to bring in humanitarian aid, Hamas needs not to be part of the problem of bringing aid to the besieged civilians.
There is a huge need for assistance in Gaza and many fine charities are doing a great job tackling poverty and unemployment among all Palestinians in Gaza. However, Hamas's interference makes it a lot harder to get aid to those most in need. Moreover, it is well known that the Israeli blockade hinders the humanitarian work of NGOs in Gaza. Hamas' intimidating practices are not helping either.