Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2012, Pages 16-17

Gaza on the Ground

The Man of Zakat Exemplified Appeal of Hamas' Humanitarian Face

By Mohammed Omer

altFatima Hamdan sits next to her makeshift home east of Gaza City. Her family home was destroyed three years ago in Operation Cast Lead. (Photo Mahmoud Omer)

The death in November from natural causes of 84-year-old Sheikh Mohammed Abed Khattab Al Najjar in Khan Younis inspired many tributes, not only in Gaza but in several Arab states where the Muslim Brotherhood is active. All of Gaza's Hamas leaders took part in his funeral, and de facto Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh himself carried Al Najjar's body. "I never met with him in person," said exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal in a phone call from Damascus during the sheikh's Nov. 13 memorial service, "but his autobiography brought him close to our heart."

Meshal described Sheikh Al Najjar as being as significant as Imam Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Hamas emerged, and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, with whom Al Najjar worked closely.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt expressed condolences for Al Najjar's death. According to Mahmoud Izzat, the Brotherhood's Cairo-based deputy supreme guide, the sheikh remained "patient, mujahid, considerate, and a defender of the truth and poor people" until the last moments of his life. Izzat called for the government in Gaza to continue in Al Najjar's footsteps.

Hamas' network of affiliated Islamic charitable organizations also lamented the loss of this admired leader. Sheikh Al Najjar was known for his kindness to the "poor, disadvantaged and needy," said legislator Dr. Fouad Al Nahal, and his life was "filled with examples to be proud of."

Indeed, it was Al Najjar who was the secret to Hamas' success. Many referred to him as the "glory of Dawwa" for leading Hamas to victory in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Before it became a political party, the organization was portrayed by the Western media as primarily a military one, with a record of violence and retaliation against the state of Israel. No mention was made of the millions of dollars Hamas collected and distributed in charitable works. This, in fact, was Sheikh Al Najjar's assignment.

The sheikh is credited with being the first Islamic leader to organize charitable aid to poor people, providing them with education and health care and sponsoring orphaned children. During the first intifada he worked in both the West Bank and Gaza—not under the auspices of Hamas, however, but under the name of the Zakat Committee.

The impact of the charitable work by such Hamas-affiliated organizations as Zakat has been largely ignored by the international community. Their significant success was attributable not only to the corruption in Fatah, but also to the dedication of people like Al Najjar, who represented a different image of Hamas through social and chartable work—thereby winning the loyalty of millions of jobless Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Umm Said is a widow who lives in the Rafah refugee camp. Having lost her husband in the first month of the current Al-Aqsa intifada, for more than 10 years she has been raising her four children on her own. Umm Said has faith in the Islamic charitable organizations that sponsor two of her children and provide sacks of food to the family on a regular basis. She doesn't really care much about political Islamic groups, but the care and support she received prompted her to vote for Hamas rather than Fatah.

altThe late Sheikh Mohammed Abed Khattab Al Najjar. (www.qassam.ps)

During the early years of the intifada, the Islamic Association, which gave her a monthly allowance, had its bank accounts frozen by the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, an envelope containing a few hundred shekels, along with a few sacks of food, were delivered to Umm Said toward the end of each month. This way the Islamic charities were able to avoid working through official PA channels. Today, however, the Islamic charities are working openly in Gaza, and Umm Said can simply go to the Islamic Association and collect her monthly child-sponsor allowance and, at times, food coupons.

Under the pressure of Israel's draconian siege of Gaza, however, with its devastating economic and social consequences, Hamas' behavior has changed—a change of which Gazans are well aware. The de facto Hamas government has been heavily criticized for violating human rights: arresting Fatah-affiliated journalists and activists—in response to similar actions by the Ramallah-based PA against Hamas-affiliated members and journalists in the West Bank—and barring members of Fatah from traveling outside of Gaza. Fatah has consistently accused Hamas of favoritism in handing out Security Forces jobs and in the distribution of aid. Several hundred youths have also expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo—including the division between Fatah and Hamas.

Adding to its unpopularity, the government has begun collecting taxes. In November the Gaza attorney general's office demanded that the Bank of Palestine pay $99 million in taxes, which the bank has not paid since 2005. Eleven of the bank's board members have been prohibited from traveling outside of Gaza until the account is settled.

Furthermore, the unemployment rate among Gazans of working age is a staggering 45.2 percent—one of the highest in the world, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. In the second half of 2010 alone, the Gaza economy lost more than 5,900 jobs, down to just 190,365.

Then, of course, there is Washington's long-standing hostility to deal with. In 2010, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on two Palestinian companies—the Islamic National Bank and Al Aqsa Satellite TV station—it accused of being close to Hamas.

Meanwhile the numbers of people in need, like Umm Said, are increasing. With the third anniversary of Operation Cast Lead approaching, thousands of families remain homeless, living if not with relatives, then in makeshift huts constructed of nylon and cloth—many providing no protection from the extremes of winter or summer.

Immediately after Israel's 2008-09 attack, however, the Hamas government provided each homeless family 4,000 euros, and 2,000 euros to those families whose homes were partially destroyed. In addition, each injured Gazan received 500 euros, and families were given 1,000 euros for each member who was killed during the three week-assault.

This may explain why, even though her family of five is among the 80 percent of Palestinians living below the poverty line, Umm Said says they will always support the "face that you know, more than a face that you never met."

If, as the Muslim Brotherhood's Izzat urges, the face of Hamas known in Gaza and the West Bank is the face of Sheikh Al Najjar, the result of the next Palestinian elections may be the same as it was in 2006. Perhaps this time the world will understand why.

Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports on the Gaza Strip, and maintains the Web site . He can be reached at <[email protected]>.