Hamas seeks grass-roots support in Islamic world to wrest additional Arab aid

Fed up with unmet promises of aid for the cash-starved Palestinian Authority, Hamas is organizing protests across the Arab and Islamic world to pressure governments to send money, a Hamas leader said Tuesday.

Hamas’ refusal to renounce its violent, anti-Israel ideology after its victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections in January has led Israel, the United States and the European Union to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars from a government they view as terrorist.
Hamas initially boasted that it would make up the shortfall by appealing to the Arab and Muslim world. But Arab states have so far failed to back up their rhetorical solidarity with the Palestinians with money, so Hamas is now pinning its hopes on grass-roots support.

“Don’t forget that Hamas has broad support in the Arab and Islamic world, and that is something Western governments apparently have not realized,” said Farhat Assad, a Hamas leader in the West Bank.

Unrest in the already volatile West Bank and Gaza Strip is liable to grow because of the government’s inability to pay government employees.

Arab League official Mohammad Sobeih said no new funds have been sent to the Palestinians since the new government took office, though some nations are paying off previous pledges. He said Algeria sent $37 million to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, bypassing the Hamas-led government.

Analysts say Arab states are reluctant in part because they see Hamas as part of a global Islamic movement that is challenging autocratic Arab regimes.

“You’re talking about a democratically elected Islamic government that is part of the wider Muslim Brotherhood network in the region,” said Mouin Rabbani of the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan.

“If that experiment succeeds, then the other parts of the Muslim Brotherhood will be clamoring for elections themselves and feel emboldened to achieve power and leadership through the ballot box,” Rabbani said.

In addition, the reluctance of Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait to cross the United States is another reason for their stinginess.

“They’re definitely looking at Washington,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a senior research fellow in Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. “They don’t want to be seen as overly supportive of the Hamas government.”

A Jordan-based Arab diplomat, citing signals sent by Washington, said he doubted that oil-rich Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, would step in to make up for the shortfall of Western aid.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss Arab contributions to the Palestinians.

In one sign that Arab nations are taking U.S. concerns into consideration, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit declined to meet this week with his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas, in Cairo, saying his schedule was too packed.

Even Iran, which is engaged in a standoff with the West over the Iranian nuclear program, is aware of Washington’s “clear messages,” Rabbani said.

“Iran has problems of its own,” Rabbani said. “I don’t think it’s going to go out of its way to create an additional one.”

Even before Hamas rose to power, Arab states had a history of shortchanging the Palestinian Authority.

In 2002, the members of the Arab League promised to donate $55 million a month to the Palestinian Authority. But since 2003, Arab countries have paid out just $761 million – just 30 percent of the promised amount over that period. And at the last Arab summit in March, pledges did not increase, despite the Palestinian Authority’s dire financial situation.

The late Yasser Arafat’s tilt toward Saddam Hussein before the 1991 Gulf War, and decades-old Palestinian attempts to topple the regimes in Jordan and Lebanon when living there in exile created bad blood with the Arab world, analysts said.

Arab states “would like to see a Palestinian state, but the history of relations is mixed,” said Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and Jordan.