Alms for jihad

I’m late getting to Michael Rubin’s review/essay of Matthew Levitt’s new book on Hamas, but the review remains timely and interesting. Rubin writes:

Mr. Levitt parses many news reports, NGO studies, court proceedings, and legal documents (although he draws on very little Arabic-language material) to separate the false rhetoric from the reality about Hamas. He lays bare the popular notion preached by European diplomats that Hamas sports distinct political, social, and military wings, or that it differentiates between military and civilian targets. For example, the political leader of Hamas in Tulkarm, Abbas al-Sayyid, put on his military hat to mastermind the March 27, 2002, bombing of a Netanya hotel Passover Seder, a civilian target. Hamas participates in the political process and supports social networks only to advance its core mission, the destruction of Israel.

Mr. Levitt’s sketch of Hamas’s history and development is also useful. It has become trendy in certain circles to suggest Hamas’s rise to be blowback from earlier support by Israel. A Center for Strategic and International Studies Middle East analyst, Tony Cordesman, for example, told United Press International that Israel “aided Hamas directly – the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance for the PLO.” Mr. Levitt corrects such musings in a chapter tracing the group’s deep roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. It is true that Israeli officials lent support to nonviolent Islamist organizations during the first intifada (1987-93), but Hamas was not among them, even if Hamas later absorbed once non-violent civil society organs. Perhaps Israeli officials were naive to engage moderate Islamists, but if so, Western calls for outreach to Hamas simply replicate past mistakes.

Mr. Levitt’s analysis is nuanced further through its juxtaposition of the seeming moderation of some Hamas officials inside the West Bank and Gaza and the external radicals. Here he warns against comparison: In the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas moderates its rhetoric and actions out of fear of the Israeli military, not of conviction. It is simply easier for the Damascus-based Mr. Mishaal to solicit Iranian funds than for those in Gaza within reach of Israeli forces.

Any serious terrorism analyst understands the importance of a money trail. Mr. Levitt makes an exceptional contribution with a chapter on “economic Jihad.” He demonstrates how Hamas launders money and uses charities to subsidize terrorism. One fatwa – issued from a Saudi governmental body – even makes it permissible to use non-Islamic, interest-bearing banks to transfer money, so long as it is used to finance jihad. On April 28, President Chirac of France argued, “[F]inancial aid to Palestinians has to be maintained for human and political reasons.” Mr. Levitt shows how Hamas twists such humanitarian aid to prove that the policy is inane. The group emphasizes early education radicalization and teaches elementary school students to venerate suicide bombers. Incitement matters. Between 2003 and 2004, children’s involvement in terrorism increased by 64%.

Hamas’s financial operations extend to America. The FBI has investigated Hamas’s links to drug trafficking, credit card fraud, sale of counterfeit products, and cigarette tax fraud. Such operations provide between $20 million and $30 million annually to Middle Eastern terrorist groups like Hamas.

Most gripping is Mr. Levitt’s breakdown of the cost of an attack. A November 27,2001,shooting attack on the Afula central bus station cost $31,000; the July 31, 2002, attack on a Hebrew University cafeteria that killed seven, including five Americans, cost $50,000. In contrast, the Holy Land Foundation, a prime financier of Hamas, raised $57 million between 1992 and 2001.

Not all cash goes directly to operations, though; donations also finance aid to the families of suicide bombers and Hamas’s social service-recruitment division. While no formal affiliation exists between Hamas and Al-Qaeda, Mr. Levitt highlights numerous financial links between the groups and raises questions about whether such ties could be made operational, either officially or through rogue cells.

Rubin’s review also touches on two thematically related books including Alms for Jihad, whose title I borrow for the heading.