As Israeli military and intelligence officers fan out across the West Bank searching for the three kidnapped Israeli teens (one is a dual U.S. citizen), they are targeting not only known Hamas militant operatives but also the movement’s political, social, and financial institutions. These arrests and raids are aimed not only at uncovering intelligence on the perpetrators of the kidnapping and location of the three boys, but also at uprooting the financial and civilian infrastructure that the movement has worked long and hard to rebuild in the West Bank.
In fact, Israel has been quietly targeting Hamas’s financial infrastructure for some time now as part of Operation Biur Hametz. (The name refers to the pre-Passover custom of burning any leftover bread before the onset of the holiday.) Much of Israel’s focus the past few months has been on Hamas’s financing from abroad, but the kidnappings have thrust this campaign into full throttle.
Hamas’s European Finance Network
Seven days into the search for the kidnapped boys, the Israeli Defense Ministry banned the UK-based charity Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), accusing the organization of serving as “one of the sources of Hamas’s funding and a means for raising funds from various countries in the world.” Several IRW chapters, including those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were run by Hamas members, according to a statement.
In December, Israel designated 12 individuals and 3 institutions, all operating out of Europe, as unlawful terrorist entities. According to the Ministry of Defense, the banned parties comprised a “Hamas HQ in Europe” and effectively functioned as “Hamas’s office in Europe.” In its annual terrorist report, the State Department noted that the action—which marked the first time Israel singled out individuals as well as organizations—was based on the entities’ involvement in “fundraising, radicalization, recruitment, or incitement.”
According to Israeli officials, Hamas invests significant energy into its fundraising and lobbying efforts in Europe and sees the region as an important arena to further is strategic goals: fundraising for Hamas activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under the guise of front organizations and lobbying for the repeal of the European Union’s designation of Hamas as a terrorist group. (This would allow Hamas to facilitate more open fundraising and support for Hamas in Europe. Hamas has appealed the EU designation before the European Court of Justice in Case T-400/10).
According to Israeli authorities, the three entities—the Council for European Palestinian Relations (CEPR), with offices in London, Brussels, and Gaza City; the European NGO’s Empowerment Services (ENES), registered in Norway; and The European Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza (ECESG), a UK-based umbrella body of some 30 groups throughout Europe—function as part of an organized Hamas campaign in Europe, employ senior Hamas operatives, and raise significant funds for the organization, which is a banned terrorist entity within the EU. The 12 individuals include some longtime targets of international counterterrorism agencies, such as Mohammad Sawalha and Essam Yousef Mustafa. Sawalha was listed as a co-conspirator in a Hamas-related U.S. federal indictment for his role in funding Hamas operations out of London as early as 1992, while Yousef is the longtime head of Interpal, a U.S.-designated Hamas front organization described by the Treasury Department as “a principal charity utilized to hide the flow of money to Hamas.” He also served as Secretary General of the Union of Good, another U.S.-designated Hamas umbrella organization, which—the Treasury Department informed—was founded by the leadership of Hamas in late-2000 for the specific purpose of facilitating the transfer of funds to Hamas.
Similarly, the others persons blacklisted in December were described by Israeli authorities as being intensively involved in recruitment and fundraising activities on behalf of Hamas in the UK, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria. Some reportedly play significant roles in one or more of the entities also banned in December, including Arafat Shoukri (UK), Ramy Ismail Abdu (UK), Mazen Issa Kahel (France), and Amin Abu Rashed (Netherlands). Others are accused of working with other Hamas front organizations in Europe.
These Israeli actions took place against the backdrop of an increased awareness in Europe of Hamas’s growing financial and logistical support networks there. For example, the German intelligence service’s annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution stated this month that some 300 Hamas members are active in the country. Europe, the report notes, is “considered a sanctuary, for example to raise funds” for Hamas and other groups. “Financial and logistical support from Germany … promotes the armed struggle against Israel.” Moreover, the report adds, “knowing that the surviving dependents of ‘martyrs’ will get certain financial and social support is extra motivation for militants to sacrifice their lives in combating Israel.”
The German intelligence report came on the heels of the release last month of the European Union’s annual Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, which similarly noted that investigations within several EU Member States underscored the continuing abuse of charities and non-profit organizations to raise funds for terrorist entities. As examples of such activity, the report referred to evidence related to cases involving several terrorists groups, including Hamas.
Hamas’s Gulf Finance Network
Hamas has long maintained financial support networks in the Gulf, including a Hamas finance committee based in Saudi Arabia. In 2001, Israeli authorities arrested Hamas operative Osama Zohadi Hamed Karika who was on his way to Saudi Arabia with documents detailing the development of Hamas’s Qassam rockets. Karika was aiming to brief financial supporters and secure continued funding for the development of the rockets. In 2005, Israeli authorities arrested an Israeli-Arab Hamas activist who played central militant, political, and financing roles for the group in coordination with what Israeli authorities described as a "Hamas command in Saudi Arabia." In 2011, the Israel Security Agency reported that Hamas leadership abroad remains actively engaged in Hamas military planning and activities, especially those based in Syria (prior to Hamas’s break with the Syrian regime in late 2011), Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—where Hamas leaders provide the group funding, guidance, and training.
Such activities apparently continue, as evidenced by the arrest last month of Mahmoud Toameh, a top-ranking oversees operative of Hamas. Toameh was a member of Hamas’s Shura Council, its highest decision-making body, operating out of Saudi Arabia. Under questioning, Toameh—who also sat on Hamas’s economic council—explained that Iran used to provide Hamas the majority of its funding, but that ended last year when Hamas and Iran had a falling-out over Hamas’s refusal to support the Assad regime in Syria. That led to a financial crisis, which Hamas responded to by stepping up its own fundraising, not only through traditional charitable organizations but also new businesses ventures. Gulf-based charities continue to finance Hamas, Toameh reported, but Hamas also generates funds through real estate corporations based in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and through an investment forum established by Hamas to funnel money into the group’s organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To move money, Hamas increasingly relies on trade-based money-laundering schemes, often involving real estate deals. In one case, some $200,000 was funneled to Hamas operatives mixed in with funds intended to pay for a Saudi-backed mosque in Tulkarm.
Just two days before the kidnapping of the Israeli teens, Israeli authorities announced the arrest in April of Palestinian soccer player Samah Fares Muhamed Marava. According to authorities, Marava met with Hamas military wing operative Talal Ibrahim Abd al-Rahman Sarim while he was in Qatar for a soccer game. Sentenced to life in prison in Israel for Hamas activities, Sarim was released as part of the Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange. Sarim provided Marava with money, a cellphone, and written messages to deliver to Hamas operatives in the West Bank.
Over the past 12 months, Israeli intelligence reportedly foiled 64 kidnapping plots, most plotted by Hamas. Indeed, as recently as April, Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza Isamil Haniyeh insisted that “abducting Israeli soldiers is a top priority on the agenda of Hamas and the Palestinian resistance.” Speaking in Qatar in late May, Hamas Secretary General Khaled Mishal acknowledged the difficulties of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails and implied that Hamas’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades, would soon issue a response. According to Israeli officials, Mishal’s comments may have signaled Hamas operatives in the West Bank to carry out the kidnapping. Whether or not that is the case, the likelihood that this was a rogue operation by a lone Hamas cell is slim to none, considering the professional nature of the operation, the fact that the boys have yet to be found despite a massive manhunt, and Hamas’s persistent effort to kidnap Israelis over the past year. According to Israeli officials, Hamas operative Saleh al-Arouri—who was deported after serving a prison sentence in Israel and currently lives in Turkey—is suspected of playing a central role in the kidnapping plot.
Hamas agreed to reconcile with Fatah largely due to the political and financial difficulties it faced, a point Mahmoud Toameh reportedly conceded upon his arrest. The fallout with Iran, combined with the closing of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt and the loss of Egyptian patronage with the fall of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, created an untenable financial situation for Hamas. And yet, it did nothing to moderate or reign in the group’s operational planning targeting Israel. Recognizing this, Israeli authorities have been targeting Hamas’s international financial networks for some time now. However the crisis of the kidnapped teens pans out, it has underscored the urgency of further prosecuting Operation Biur Hametz.
Dr. Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism & Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His most recent book is Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.