Image: Palestinian children protest
Nasser Shiyoukhi  /  AP
Palestinian children protest the closing of Hamas charities during a demonstration organized by Hamas in the West Bank city of Hebron on Sunday.
updated 4/30/2008 9:25:13 PM ET 2008-05-01T01:25:13

To Nayfa Shatat, the widowed mother of 11, Hebron's biggest Islamic charity is a lifeline: It schools her daughters and helps feed her family.

To Israel, the Islamic Charitable Association is a front for the Islamic militant group Hamas, promoting the movement's violent ideology in its schools and funding extremist activity against Israel.

Early Wednesday, Israeli soldiers raided a sewing workshop run by the association, seizing sewing machines and bolts of cloth, witnesses said. The army said the workshop was used to raise money for militants.

While the association denies any links with Hamas, the military says it plans to close all the charity's operations, which include a boarding school for 600 disadvantaged children, several day schools and a bakery.

It's part of an intensified crackdown on Hamas by Israel and the West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' forces last June, and neither Israel nor Abbas want to see a repeat in the West Bank.

In recent months, Israeli troops and Abbas' security forces have gone after West Bank charities, moneychangers, women's cooperatives and media outlets with suspected ties to the militants.

However, closing the Hebron association is more delicate because it serves thousands of children.

'Hamas is hemorrhaging'
A closure would deny services to the poor at a time when Abbas' government is not always able to pay for an alternative. Hamas has built a network of schools, clinics and welfare offices over two decades, deepening its roots in Palestinian society as a key provider of social services.

The closure might hamper Hamas' ability to deliver services, but would also taint Abbas, political scientist Salah Abdel Jawad said.

"Israel is weakening Palestinian society. It's harming the most vulnerable group of Palestinians," he said. "Hamas is hemorrhaging (popularity), but Israel isn't strengthening Mahmoud Abbas this way."

The association's lawyer, Abdel Karim Farah, has appealed the military's closure order, but the Israeli Supreme Court hasn't set a hearing date. Officials in the Abbas government said they were also trying to block the closure, but did not provide details.

Shatat, the widow, said she would be lost without the charity. "I can't provide for my children the way the association does," said Shatat, who lost her husband to cancer two years ago.

Two of her daughters, ages 9 and 10, attend the charity's boarding school, which largely caters to children from single-parent families, mostly widows. Four other children attend a public school, but rely on the charity for food aid and school supplies. Her other five children are no longer in school.

Other than the handouts, the family scrapes by on about $200 a month earned by her oldest son.

Teaching Islamic extremism?  
At the boarding school, students get a free education, hot meals, food coupons for their families and transportation home every weekend. The charity also runs schools and nurseries for 6,400 day students, about half of whom study for free.

Israel accuses the association of teaching children Islamic extremism and of financing violence.

"Hamas invests a lot into the education of children ... to teach them extremism ... and recruit them to terror acts. The system is clear-cut, it's meant to finance that," said Maj. Avital Leibowich, an army spokesman.

Association staff say they aren't a Hamas front. They say that the association was founded in 1962, five years before Israel captured the West Bank, and that it registered first with Israel's military government and later with the Palestinian Authority.

The charity has assets valued at about $10 million, including a cattle farm, apartments, bakeries and commercial real estate, said Farah, the lawyer. It receives millions of dollars from donors in Persian Gulf states to help cover monthly costs of $635,000.

Farah said Israeli security forces have confiscated thousands of dollars worth of association property.

A clear Islamic bent
Hamas officials deny direct involvement in the charity, though they say they support its work.

The association's schools teach four Islamic lessons a week, the same as Palestinian state schools. But there is a clear Islamic bent in the boarding school. On a recent afternoon, a social worker in a robe and Muslim head scarf ushered giggling girls into pink-painted rooms to prayer.

Amal Abu Habdiyeh, 11, has lived in the boarding school since her father died five years ago. She said she would feel out of place elsewhere. "If I go to a public school, there'll be no orphans, and the children will talk about their happy homes," she said.

The boarding school has received outside help.

Christian group helps out
Volunteers from Christian Peacemakers, a group of American and Canadian pacifists who work in conflict zones, sleep in the dormitory in shifts in hopes of deterring the army from shutting the facility.

"We are convinced there is no connection between the charity and Hamas," said Art Arbour, a 65-year-old retired school principal from Canada.

The children and the women who rely on the association are clearly worried.

Shatat said that without the boarding school, her daughters would be married off once they reach their late teens — simply because she could not afford to educate them.

"If my girls were to come home, I'd be happy, but it would be a big burden for me. I can't provide for them the way they do here," she said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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