Fatah, Hamas fight upends aid to Palestinian poor

Naila Khalaf and four of her 11 children.
Naila Khalaf and four of her 11 children. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

BIR ZEIT, West Bank — The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is here, and Naila Khalaf is entering it with little to feed her 11 children.

Her husband, a Fatah loyalist, is in an Israeli prison for illegally selling a weapon. Fatah, whose most prominent member is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has done virtually nothing to help her family while her husband is behind bars.

Now the Palestinian Authority has ordered the closure of the small Islamist charity that Khalaf relies on for food, clothes and toys for her children.

"May God damn Fatah," Khalaf said as she corralled four of her kids, who were scrambling about the family's bare living room. "Fatah hasn't given us a penny."

Khalaf, 33, and her children are among millions of Palestinians caught in the intensifying political crossfire between Fatah and its archrival, the Islamist movement Hamas.

In the three months since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, Abbas has worked methodically to make sure that Hamas can't amass enough power to challenge his control in the West Bank.

Abbas first dissolved the Hamas-dominated government and appointed a pro-Western Cabinet in its place. Then he barred armed militias from operating in the West Bank, diluted the power of the Hamas-dominated legislature and imposed rules that will make it more difficult for the Islamist group to participate in elections.

Israel has helped by keeping dozens of Hamas lawmakers in prison, which has made it impossible for the legislature to meet and challenge the president's rule.

Last week, the Abbas-appointed government issued rules barring unauthorized charities from collecting money in West Bank mosques during Ramadan, a month when Muslims traditionally give more to the poor.

Preachers also have been warned that they could be removed from their mosques if they deliver inflammatory political sermons.

In addition, the Palestinian Authority has ordered more than 100 West Bank charities to close. Among them is Al Waroud, the small, women-run group that helps the Khalafs and nearly 90 other families.

Since Hamas draws much of its populist support from its deep-rooted charity network, the closures appear designed to undermine the Islamist group's West Bank infrastructure.

Khalaf clucked her tongue when she spoke of Abbas and said her husband now regrets backing Fatah. Abbas “doesn't hurt Hamas," she said. "He hurts people like us."

Though it has little power to protest in the West Bank, Hamas is using its grip on the Gaza Strip to contest Fatah's policies.

Hamas has banned public protests and beaten Fatah demonstrators who tried to challenge the ban last week with a public prayer. The Hamas-led security forces have violently broken up a Fatah wedding party and arrested Fatah loyalists. Hamas also has targeted some local journalists with threats and beatings.

The West Bank destabilization campaign is creating grumbling among Hamas leaders who are trying to stay under the Fatah radar.

Rafe Hussein, a former official in the Hamas-led Ministry of Information, was anxious as he discussed the two groups’ rivalry on a street corner in Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government, recently. Nearby, a man in a suit, possibly a Palestinian Authority intelligence agent, seemed to listen intently.

"It's a complete war," Hussein said before rushing off without letting his photograph be taken. "We are waiting for more steps against us. It's a blow to the movement, but it has taken such blows before and managed to get out of it."

Abbas loyalists in the Palestinian Authority portray the crackdown not as a campaign to destabilize Hamas, but as an attempt to impose law and order in the West Bank.

During its 14 months in control of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas signed off on the creation of 600 charities, said Samoud Damiri, a legal adviser with the Interior Ministry who has been reviewing the paperwork. The ministry contends that the groups improperly registered or cut corners by sending their applications to Hamas government officials in the Gaza Strip instead of to officials in the West Bank.

So far, the ministry has ordered the closure of more than half of the 200 cases reviewed by the staff. More than three-quarters of them are allied with Hamas, according to the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens Rights.

"I am sad for the people who benefit from these charities, but at the end of the day, I am doing what is right," Damiri said.

For now, the women who run Al Waroud are fighting to keep its doors open.

The year-old group has a one-room thrift store filled with musty clothes, a food bank and a small kitchen where they make upward of 400 small pizzas each day to be used as snacks and sale items for schools and other social groups.

Last week, Palestinian police broke down the charity's door and confiscated the group's computer and files. After a four-hour protest at the police station, the Palestinian Authority returned most of the charity’s property after admitting that it had made a mistake because the charity still had 60 days to appeal the closure.

Until the matter is settled, Al Waroud has been told it can run only its pizza kitchen.

"People are afraid to give money now," said Mazuzeh Hussein, 37, the charity director. "People will be afraid to be associated with us."

Mouin Barghouti, a legal adviser with the independent citizens rights commission, said the tit-for-tat was helping neither side.

"It's a problem for both sides and the bigger impact will be on Palestinian society," Barghouti said. "This will create an earthquake and division within Palestinian society."