The ‘Les Misérables’ industry of Gaza

An online fundraising campaign for Gaza, FunzRazr website (screenshot)

Hamas’ Mafia style Corruption and Abuse of International Donations

Close to two million Palestinians have been living in the Gaza Strip under the oppressive rule of Hamas since 2007, when the terrorist organisation seized exclusive political power there by staging a violent military coup. Since then, the Gazan population has been suffering under a regime that fundamentally mismanages their affairs, wasting billions on weapons and terrorist training and installations instead of spending it on civilian infrastructure and vital services. Corruption, embezzlement and abuse of public funds is also commonplace.

Many, or even most (as Hamas claims), of the residents of the strip are in dire straits financially. The social and economic impact of the recent coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the effects of years of Hamas-provoked conflict and closures, with little hope that Hamas will stop its belligerence and mismanagement anytime soon.

Not surprisingly, this situation has left Gazans poor, unemployed and desperate. Despite Hamas’ intolerance towards dissent, people in Gaza have repeatedly protested in the past about their economic hardship.

Many international agencies, NGOs and charitable groups are operating in Gaza, and they manage hundreds of millions of dollars of aid annually from donors, supporters and governments. Most of these government programs, NGOs and private initiatives are truly dedicated to helping the needy in Gaza under difficult circumstances.

However, there is evidence that at least some charities in Gaza have ties to Hamas and other terrorist groups in the strip. Moreover, this article presents evidence that a ‘Les Misérables’ industry has emerged in Gaza, exploiting the misery of locals to make a fortune, either for terror groups or simply for individual enrichment. Individuals and charity organisations (fake or real) reach out to the donors to request money for benevolent causes. They publish pictures of poor women and children living in Gaza, real or staged. And the money donated to good causes ends up in the pockets of slippery operators or terrorists.

Corruption with respect to charitable donations in Gaza can be broken down into three types: institutional, by Hamas officials and other terrorist groups; organisational, by charity associations and their workers; and individual, by professional swindlers acting on their own.

Even in the latter two cases, corrupt organisations and individuals usually have ties to Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) or other terrorist groups, which get a “cut” from the revenue stream in exchange for “protection” and ensuring that these corrupt initiatives are allowed to continue to operate without interference.

The information presented in the following paragraphs is based on sources in Arabic, Hebrew and English collected over several weeks by the author of this story, and on reports and investigations conducted by the Israeli Middle Eastern expert “Abu Ali” (a pseudonym), who monitors social media and the press in the Arab world on a daily basis.

Hamas’ official corruption

As the organisation governing Gaza, senior Hamas officials have the easiest access to donated funds destined for the residents of the strip.

Take for example Fathi Hamad, one of the more extreme members inside Hamas’ core leadership, notorious for his 2019 statement that Palestinians “must attack every Jew on the globe by way of slaughter and killing,” and not ‘just’ Israelis and Zionists.

In February, Hamas’ Gaza head, Yahya Sinwar, reportedly ordered the establishment of a committee to investigate Hamad’s involvement in the alleged embezzlement of Hamas funds.

Hamad is the protector and patron of the Al-Falakh charity, which is managed by the Tanboora family. Ramadan Tanboora, the senior member of the family, reportedly maintains personal close ties with the overall leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyah, as well as with his patron Hamad. The Tanboora family enjoys a lavish lifestyle, including holidays in luxurious hotels abroad and helicopter rides.

Supporters of Fatah, a rival movement to Hamas which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, have recently alleged that the Al-Falakh charity has multiple ties with powerful figures in Turkey and is participating in money laundering under the guise of overseeing charitable donations to Gaza. In addition, they charge that charity funds are being stolen by the directors of Al-Falakh and diverted to personal investments abroad using dummy companies, which then later distribute the revenues to top Hamas officials.

Meanwhile, Mas’ab al-Khaya is a relative of the Hamas leader Khalil al-Khaya. According to Gaza sources (as reported in April by the Israeli TPS news agency), Mas’ab is accused of embezzling donations collected in Turkey and Iran for Gaza residents.

Other reports from Jordanian sources allege that Zaher Jabarin, treasurer of the Hamas office in Turkey, stole US$2 million from funds designated for Gaza and used it to buy real-estate. The property is supposedly under his wife’s name, since Jabarin is a listed terrorist under US law.

Terrorising charities Mafia style

A detailed exposé published in May in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (an official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority), reveals how Hamas created a “charity mafia”. According to the report, Hamas officials and institutes managed by Hamas in Gaza, including various charities, run dozens of online begging campaigns supposedly to collect money for the needy and to increase solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Millions of Israeli Shekels are collected this way with direct assistance from Hamas and its internal security apparatus – an organisation that also supervise almost all money transfers into and out of the strip. Sources told the newspaper that Hamas’ internal security militants closely record the amounts of money reaching each sector of the Gazan economy from external sources. Then, they summon for investigation anyone suspected of receiving large sums from sources outside Gaza to clarify to these individuals that they must work with the security apparatus and share the revenue with them if they want their money to continue to flow unabated. These mafia-type arrangements are enforced on all aid associations, foundations and charities in Gaza, the newspaper claimed. In some cases, for example with regards to electronic theft using bank cards from around the world, the cut for various Hamas agencies could be as high as 50 per cent.

Some corruption methods are almost comic. Needy Gaza residents who are eligible for assistance from Oman revealed to Al-Hayat Al-Jadida another alleged method in which donations for their benefit were being exploited for corruption. These residents received 200 Shekel vouchers distributed by the Sawa’d Centre managed by Mahmoud Abu Saleh. However, when they tried to purchase goods with the vouchers, their value was limited to 80 Shekels in the supermarket run by the same Mahmoud Abu Saleh. Ironically, the Sawa’d Centre offers courses on “e-commerce and digital marketing” sponsored by Hamas’ Ministry of Youth and Sport (perhaps to teach them how to be online beggars?).

 

Mahmoud Abu Saleh featured on a Sawa’d Centre poster (social media)

Delivery of aid packages for the poor, sick or elderly of Gaza that go through Hamas charitable mechanisms is also being subjected to occasional exploitation. Hamas operatives sometimes ensure their own extended families are guaranteed priority access to any aid distributed. A video circulating on social media starting a few weeks ago showed a Hamas official in Jabaliya, in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, delivering a package to a needy family. It is then revealed that the needy family is allegedly his own.

Charities aligned with Hamas regularly ensure that carefully-staged images show the aid reaching Gaza residents. The ultimate aim of taking a photo or video of these orchestrated and sometimes humiliating scenes is to make sure that charity money keeps being channelled to Hamas-affiliated charity groups, not independent ones.

For example, Al-Rahma charity, affiliated to Hamas, sent a text message (exposed by Abu Ali) to poor families in late April emphasising that in order to be eligible for food packages, every family must come to the association’s offices accompanied by at least one of their children – who will be photographed for the occasion.

PIJ related fraud

And then there is the convoluted story of Rafah resident and PIJ affiliated journalist Hassan Yosef and his feud with his own organisation after he attempted to expose its alleged corruption.

In a video posted on social media, Hassan revealed that a PIJ frontman was allegedly used in a circular deal to purchase two apartments for a sum of US$56,000 in order to hide embezzlement of funds intended for charity.

In early May Yosef accused Hamas operative Sai’d al-Tawil of sexually exploiting poor women by inviting them to “receive donations” and food aid in several of his apartments in Gaza.

Hassan called on the Hamas leadership to assemble a committee that would investigate his allegations about al-Tawil.

Unfortunately for Hassan, al-Tawil is affiliated with Mohammad Dahlan, a key Fatah strongman in exile, and also has ties to the Hamas security apparatus. Shortly after the story about al-Tawil broke, Hassan was called in for interrogation by the security unit of his own organisation (PIJ) where, according to online accounts, he was tortured until he lost consciousness. After his release he posted on his Facebook page an apology to al-Tawil, expressing regret for his “mistake”.

A couple of weeks later, Hassan was again arrested, this time by operatives of PIJ’s military wing, and was kept isolated from his family. Following a public outcry, Hamas seized Hassan from the PIJ, and later released him.

Yet Hassan did not stop, and again attacked the PIJ in a video circulated on social media. PIJ responded by claiming that Hassan is not a journalist and that his story about corruption was a lie, while  “firing” him from his position as a PIJ commander. At the same time, PIJ did remove the alleged frontman in Hassan’s apartment-buying allegations from their ranks, which does suggest Hassan’s allegations may have had some factual basis.

Online beggars

Finally, there are also independent locals who participate in the ‘Les Misérables’ industry as professional online panhandlers. Easily accessible online platforms for collecting donations via popular money transfer services such as PayPal (and in some cases, also via Whatsapp) are generally used in such campaigns. A popular Gazan joke these days is about a father boasting how his son is “a digital beggar.”

Khan Yunis resident and self-described freelance photojournalist Walid Abu Ruc Kadich is an alleged master of online begging techniques. The Israeli website Taztpit (Outlook), claimed in December last year that Abu Ruc is a Hamas operative, and that, for a couple of years, he administered Facebook pages supporting pro-Palestinian UK Labour party leader at the time, Jeremy Corbyn. Abu Ruc denies any ties to Hamas.

These days, under the name Walid Mahmoud, Abu Ruc manages 20 different crowdfunding campaigns on the “LaunchGood” website for Muslim charitable activities.

His campaigns, run under headings such as “Keep me warm Gaza” and “Freedom from poverty”, are accompanied by heartbreaking pictures of children from Gaza. His “Imperishable Dream” fundraiser, for example, cynically features an image of a sad girl in a wheelchair.

Some of Abu Ruc’s (Walid Mahmoud) campaigns on the LaunchGood online crowdfunding platform (screenshot)

Abu Ruc also posted a video in which he presented himself as a talented photographer who is unable to purchase a proper professional camera for his work, and instead is forced to rely on his “simple” phone camera.

Abu Ruc is currently exploiting the coronavirus crisis for his apparently fraudulent fundraising purposes. At the end of March, he started the “Covid-19 in Gaza Emergency Relief” campaign to provide “productive suits to Gazans” on the “LaunchGood” crowdfunding platform for charities. His “Palestine coronavirus relief” campaign on “Globalgiving” featured a woman wearing a surgical mask and calling on donors to open their hearts and pockets because “In Gaza we are two million people and have only 60 ventilators, this is a nightmare. Stop this suffering now.”

Using these emotive techniques, Abu Ruc cajoled patrons to donate anywhere between US$2,000 and 10,000 Euros. As reported by Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Abu Ruc eventually raised US$150,000 (A$216,000).

When a Gaza resident approached Abu Ruc and ask for assistance in buying a respiratory machine, Abu Ruc reportedly responded by blocking the person who contacted him on social media and then moving his online solicitation business to foreign based platforms.

In an interview with Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, university professor Dr. Raed Al-Attal gave an example of a campaign run by a Gazan girl under a pseudonym which collected 30,000 Israel Shekels (approximately A$12,750) from a single donor. Within a month, she opened 3 accounts on Facebook and collected more money from Israeli relatives (who live in Umm al-Fahem and Beersheba). The money was then transferred via a Gazan merchant in exchange for his cut for every such transaction.

It turns out, says Al-Attal, that this girl has friends in Hamas’ internal security organisation, who protect and cover up her activity. He further alleged that, in this way, millions of Shekels have been collected without any supervision, control or transparency.

Al-Attal also made the allegation that Dina Miemah, a teacher for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) from Rafah, managed to collect thousands of dollars for ‘the poor and the children of Gaza’ both privately and via a PayPal account. Her campaigns and personal page were later suddenly disrupted and removed from Facebook, he said. The author of this article was able to trace a few of Miemah’s no longer active campaigns online (on Gogetfunding and FundRazr).

A now defunct active 2018 online fundraising for Gaza campaign page by Dina Miemah (screenshot)

Help Gazans, not Hamas

Gazans openly criticise the “Les Miserable” charity industry run and encouraged by Hamas. Dr. Ahed Khalas, interviewed by Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, labelled the online begging industry a destructive “homemade coronavirus epidemic” transferred from the leaders to the people of Gaza, stressing that it has nothing to do with the blockade on the strip. Several officials from charity organisation told the newspaper anonymously that they refuse to submit to the corruption of Hamas leaders who told them to hand over half of all donations to the terrorist organisation.

The misery of Gaza residents is real but is very largely the direct result of Hamas’ control over their lives. Those wishing to help Gazans, including international agencies and individuals, need to be very aware that the hardships of the people of Gaza are being cynically abused by Hamas and others for personal gain, and to fund violence and Hamas’ oppressive rule. Well-meaning charities and donors need to do their utmost to protect their charitable efforts from this diversion, corruption or misuse.

The author wishes to thank to Israeli researcher Abu Ali, who first reported and fact-checked many of the corruption allegations mentioned in this article.

About the Author
A Research Associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University, teaching about the Middle East and Israel at Melbourne Uni and Monash University. A published analyst on the Middle East and Israel, he is a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya Israel and a research Associate at Future Directions International Research Institute, Western Australia.
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