Politics & Policy

Our Blind Spot

Hamas and Saudi Arabia.

On December 4, 2001, announcing the Treasury Department’s freezing of the assets of the Holy Land Foundation — a tax-exempt “charity” that funneled millions of dollars to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which the president himself described as “an extremist group that calls for the total destruction of the State of Israel…one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world today” — Bush pledged unequivocally: “The message is this: Those who do business with terror will do no business with the United States or anywhere else the United States can reach.”

This courageous (and correct) U.S. action notwithstanding, less than five years later, Hamas has carried out thousands of terror attacks in which 425 civilians and soldiers were murdered and 2,233 wounded. Despite its increasingly bloody record — or perhaps because of it — Hamas was elected to run the Palestinian Authority government. And, since the responsibilities of governance have not in the least tempered the fanaticism of the terrorist group’s leaders, the Bush administration has suspended direct financial assistance to the PA.

While PA’s Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas and its Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya — along with their Western fellow travelers — have been loudly bemoaning the aid cut-off, and while certainly some ordinary Palestinians have had their lives inconvenienced, it is quite telling that Hamas has not been crippled. In fact, the Hamas campaign of violence continues unabashedly, in full swing, proving that terrorists can both “govern” and kill at the same time.

On June 9 Hamas issued a statement praising Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, as a “symbol of resistance to occupation.”

The next day, Egyptian Interior Minister Habib El-Adly confronted his PA counterpart with evidence demonstrating that the suicide bombers who had perpetrated attacks in the Sinai Peninsula in April were trained in the Gaza Strip by Hamas operatives.

Then, on June 13, CNN reported that Hamas may well have been directly responsible for the bomb that blew up on a Gaza beach the week before, killing an innocent Palestinian family. An errant Israeli bomb (meant to neutralize Hamas operatives) had been blamed for the killing, but after initially expressing its regrets the Jewish state has provided evidence that the family was killed by a Hamas improvised explosive device (IED) that went off accidentally. Hamas has since expressed its desire to renew the cease-fire it had cancelled in the wake of the family’s death, perhaps implicitly conceding that the findings of the Israeli investigation were on target.

How does this terrorist group continue operating despite the international boycott? An incident on June 13 involving PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar is telling. The Hamas leader was briefly stopped, but otherwise unhindered, as he transited through the international airport in Cairo with seven suitcases stuffed with an estimated $20 million. At the Rafah crossing-point from Sinai to Gaza, European monitors asked al-Zahar to explain the small fortune in his luggage, but did not detain him when he proved unresponsive. Then Palestinian Force 17 militiamen aligned with Fatah and President Abbas asked him to sign a guarantee that the money would be deposited in the Palestinian exchequer. Al-Zahar told them that he would think about it, then drove off. The foreign minister is the third Hamas official to enter at the Rafah crossing into Gaza carrying large amounts of cash. Last month, a Hamas lawmaker passed through with $4.5 million in banknotes. Before that, a Hamas spokesman brought in $800,000. Not a single dollar of these cash deliveries ever reached official Palestinian national coffers. Rather, Palestinian sources report that the cash covered the wages of Hamas’s militiamen and “security forces” — that is, the hired killers of “one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world today.”

And the provenance of this money? Ironically, given President Bush’s pledge that “those who do business with terror will do no business with the United States,” much of it comes from a country whose princes are regular guests at the Crawford Ranch.

According to Israel’s Center for Special Studies, as of 2003, up to 60 percent of Hamas’s annual budget came from Saudi Arabia, including from official sources, government-sponsored telethons, and government-run charities, as well as from Saudi individuals and organizations. The Saudi flow of money to Hamas has been so great, historically, that long before he became PA president, Mahmoud Abbas was complaining about it, as attested to by a December 2000 letter he wrote to Prince Salman, governor of Riyadh, discovered by Israeli forces during Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002.

Matthew Levitt, formerly a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and now deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury, has just published Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad. He notes that last September Israel arrested an Israeli Arab, Yakub Muhamad Yakub Abu Etzev, who played central militant, political, and financing roles for Hamas in coordination with what Israeli authorities described as a “Hamas command in Saudi Arabia.” Until he was arrested, Abu Etzev was in contact via e-mail with senior Hamas officials in Saudi Arabia. According to Israeli authorities, Abu Etzev confessed to receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Hamas headquarters in Saudi Arabia as well as instructions, which he passed on to Hamas field operatives. The funds entered the West Bank through human couriers and money changers, often under the cover of dawa (Islamic charity and proselytism work).

Saudi officials insist that then-Crown Prince Abdullah officially withdrew the kingdom’s support for Hamas in early 2002. However, late last year, Saudi television was still running a program on the “jihad” in Palestine that implored viewers to donate funds to the intifada. A caption on the screen informed prospective donors that they could send funds through the “Saudi Committee for Support of the al-Quds Intifada’s Account Ninety-Eight … a joint account at all Saudi banks.” The government-created account continues to fund Palestinian organizations, preeminent among them Hamas.

Michael Barone recently noted that President Bush has a much better sense of history than do many of his critics. The president, Barone argues, understands the need for bold action to confront an existential threat better than any president since Harry Truman. Yet, somehow, Bush has a blind spot when it comes to this desert kingdom, and it threatens to undermine the central pillar of his presidency.

–Michael I. Krauss is a professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Both are academic fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and visited Israel for the FDD earlier last year

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