DALLAS – Cradle-to-grave social support - from kindergartens to medical supplies to aid for needy families - helped Hamas win the hearts and minds of Palestinians and vault the terrorist group to power, an Israeli security official said Monday.
"Avi," a lawyer with the Israeli Security Agency, was accepted as an expert witness on Hamas' financial infrastructure in the trial of five men accused of illegally funneling millions of dollars to the terrorist group. He was allowed to testify anonymously for security reasons. Spectators were cleared from the courtroom before his testimony and a camera feeding the proceedings to a second courtroom was covered.
Avi described his research into Hamas' finances and social systems in the course of Israeli investigations dating back to 2000. He prepared a Power Point presentation showing how Hamas social programs serve Palestinians throughout all phases of the life cycle. Hamas runs kindergartens, primary and high schools and universities, Avi said. They provide medical supplies and cash support for the families of men imprisoned by Israel, killed by Israeli soldiers or who died carrying out terrorist attacks.
The defendants, officials at the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), directed millions of dollars to those social committees prosecutors say were controlled by Hamas. Previous evidence and testimony showed HLF officials at rallies praising Hamas and collecting money. Defense attorneys argue the foundation merely sought to provide aid to needy Palestinians.
Hamas-run educational programs are pivotal, Avi testified, because they capture hearts and minds at the youngest ages and follow youngster through their development. But providing support to the families of martyrs and detainees is just as important, because without it, Hamas "will have difficulty recruiting new members. The families are an important factor here. Even in financial crises, the first money they collected went to the families."
That also explains why support goes to families of martyrs and detainees who might not be Hamas members. "If you focus on only one segment of the population, you are staying very small," Avi said.
Federal prosecutor Elizabeth Shapiro showed Avi a 1998 article from Middle East Affairs Journal, which was published by the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR). The UASR was founded by Hamas deputy political chief Mousa Abu Marzook and is listed in repeated exhibits as a member of the Palestine Committee, created to help Hamas financially and politically.
Azzam Tamimi, described by Avi as an open supporter of Hamas, wrote an article called "The Legitimacy of Palestinian Resistance: An Islamist's Perspective." In it, Tamimi wrote that Hamas' social institutions are so rooted in Palestinian communities that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Israel could shut them down:
"The fact of the matter is that Hamas, contrary to Israeli assessment, acts as an infrastructure to the numerous cultural, educational and social institutions in Gaza and the West Bank that render invaluable and irreplaceable services to the public. In other words, it is Hamas that gives life to these institutions and not the reverse."
Indeed, in its early days the Palestinian Authority tried to strike "a delicate political balance" with the committees even though Hamas controlled them, Avi said. Though they were rivals, the PA did not need to fight with Hamas for popular support.
Those charities, known as zakat committees, were never open about their support for Hamas, Avi said. "They are afraid the money flow will stop," intercepted either by Israel or other countries where donations are made. Shapiro played a tape for the jury featuring an interview with Hamas political leader Khalid Mishaal. In the tape, Mishaal boasted about his organization's focus on taking care of the families of martyrs and prisoners.
"We have to bring happiness to the hearts of these families, just as the martyrs and these children detained in these jails, just like they brought happiness to our hearts when they practiced their struggle and made us glad by fighting the Zionist enemies."
But Mishaal demurred when asked for specific information on where to send donations for cause because "the American ears are listening now, but look for those whom you trust and they will get the money to HAMAS."
Hamas officials credited the social support it provides for its 2006 victory in Palestinian elections. That led to a coalition government, Avi explained, with Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas as president. But the coalition fell apart quickly and violently, with Hamas seizing total control of Gaza. In response, the Palestinian Authority "dissolved" West Bank zakat committees and reconstituted them into regional organizations stripped of Hamas representatives.
Defense attorneys asked for a mistrial after jurors were led out of the courtroom. Avi's testimony "was so prejudicial it cannot be overcome." HLF's support to the zakat committees had been cast as the reason for Hamas' electoral success and the resulting civil war, argued defense attorney Joshua Dratel.
Shapiro noted that similar testimony was allowed in the first trial last year. And, she said, defense attorneys last year argued that the PA could have acted against the zakat committees but did not.
U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis did not rule on the mistrial request. Avi is expected back on the stand when court resumes Tuesday.