By Lara Pham
Given the recent escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence, the media has no shortage of horrific stories from Gaza. Hamas, notorious for its violence, has been firing rockets into Israel as it responds with air strikes. The conflict has claimed the lives of over 1,830 Palestinian civilians, 64 Israeli soldiers, and three Israeli civilians.
Hamas is labeled by the U.S. and European Union as a terrorist organization. It continues to fire at Israel, knowing full well that doing so will ensure Palestinian loss of life. It seeks to harm Israeli citizens. If not for the group’s provision of key resources and social services, labeling Hamas as unequivocally and exclusively a terrorist organization would be accurate, all-encompassing. But what is one to make of this damning label when Hamas is in fact responsible for providing a fair amount of social services for Palestinians largely cut off from many resources?
To ignore the significant network of services offered by Hamas would be a mistake. Haim Malka, deputy director and senior fellow of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found that that Hamas’ extensive social and welfare programs have an annual budget between $50-70 million.
Built by Gaza’s citizens, the same tunnels that were used to smuggle weapons to attack Israel were originally used to transport life-saving medicine, clothing, food, fuel, and other basic supplies. When the Israeli blockade was imposed in 2007, many of these basic items were unavailable through normal trade. The blockade has since been relaxed, but the tunnels are still used, at least in part, for the transportation of civilian goods.
When Hamas formed in 1987 as a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, it naturally took on several commitments of its parent organization, including ideals about social responsibility. Article 21 of the Hamas Covenant states that “Mutual social responsibility means extending assistance, financial or moral, to all those who are in need and joining in the execution of some of the work. Members of the Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] should consider the interests of the masses as their own personal interests.”
Historically, the Palestinian Authority (PA) as led by Fatah (Hamas’ political rival), has failed to effectively provide such services to the Palestinian people in Gaza. Even though the Israeli government has recently eased its blockade on Gaza, Palestinians still face sizeable hurdles to acquire basic resources. Hamas has been able to fill that void so effectively that it is considered one of the reasons that contributed to their victory over the secular Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Clearly, many impoverished Palestinian people viewed Hamas as a necessary provider for the population, especially given Fatah’s alleged corruption and the region’s dismal economy. This is not to say that all Palestinians support Hamas, as some hate-filled editorials would have the world think.
There is a wide range of social service providers in the Palestinian territories, including the PA, UNRWA, secular NGOs, and the Islamist social sector, says Dr. Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. Roy notes that “while the Islamist social sector [like that of Hamas] was certainly not the largest in terms of direct reach, it provided services in areas that the PA was unable to provide adequately, if at all, targeting populations left underserved and sometimes working in areas—e.g., providing care and education for abandoned children born out of wedlock—few, if any, service providers would enter.”
But Hamas is not Palestine, and Palestine is not Hamas. A 22-year-old Palestinian Christian man recently expressed this distinction in the Huffington Post, “I don’t like the ideology of Hamas. They’re brainwashed. Hamas undermines the value of Palestinian life. I’m not against resistance [to Israel]. But I want intellectual leaders – not military leaders.”
Though it continues to war with Israel and its enormous army, Hamas has a long history of providing the Palestinian people with much needed services. Promoting community and even charity, the group has established and supported schools, orphanages, mosques, medical centers, and food banks.
The reasons behind Hamas’ charitable work are hotly debated. Some argue that the social services work serves as a veil for legitimacy, which supports for its military operations and terrorism. Others claim that it is part of a religious imperative for Muslims to aid those in need.
Regardless, Hamas and the Islamist social sector has established itself as a viable alternative for key social programs that are needed in Gaza in these devastating times. The Israeli blockade and the PA’s lack of resources has left Palestinian social and welfare programs in shambles, and Hamas, for better or worse, has actively stepped in. “One excellent example [of an effective Hamas-led service],” says Roy, “is the al-Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital (al-Wafa), which Israel destroyed during the early days of the current offensive.”
Al-Wafa was widely known as a Hamas institution that provided important and necessary specialized social and medical services. Roy writes in her book, Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector, “By 2007, al-Wafa remained the only facility providing extensive medical care—including psychosocial support and community reintegration programs—for severely disabled Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” When the PA and other social service networks were unable to provide, Hamas found a way to establish a professional and reputable institution that administered much needed aid to vulnerable Palestinians.
Current socio-economic conditions continue to call for these essential programs and services. Gaza is incredibly densely populated with 1.8 million people packed into territory that is only 25 miles long and 7 miles wide, according to co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement Elizabeth Ferris.
Gaza’s unemployment rate is at a staggering 50 percent. A majority of Gaza’s population requires international humanitarian aid, but Israeli policies have limited the flow of these basic goods. When the situation is desperate, the population will turn to charities for aid, no matter who’s behind those charities.
Hamas is not just a one-dimensional terrorist organization. It is also a group that takes on political, cultural, and social functions. All together, these aspects make Hamas a powerful community actor. Whether friend or foe, one cannot deny Hamas’ social prowess.
Hamas’ complex roles in charity and violence raise difficult policy dilemmas. Simply eradicating Hamas-led social welfare programs would hardly eliminate Hamas’ influence. It has established some legitimacy in Gaza, though recently in the wake of continued violence, this is waning. If the international community wishes to continue attacking and shutting off Hamas’ social welfare programs, it will also need to establish social services equally effective or superior to those group has provided. Only then can the international community weaken a group that, while providing some assistance in the region, has put it at overwhelming risk.
Lara Pham is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a master's candidate in international affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.