Meet the Hamas billionaires

Khaled Mashaal  picture: Reuters

"Among the Palestinians, they tell you straight out, 'I want to get rich.'"

In recent days, various media have been publishing photographs of Hamas leaders in luxurious homes with fitness equipment, at luxury hotels around the world, etc. On the other hand, distressing pictures are being shown of the suffering of the Palestinian people in their rundown houses, whom Hamas says it represents.

One of the big mysteries is how much the Hamas leaders, the Arab world's new tycoons, are worth, and how they, born and raised in refugee camps, who raise aloft the cause of their people's welfare, have become so wealthy and reclusive.

Col. (res.) Dr. Moshe Elad, a lecturer in the Middle East Department of the Western Galilee Academic College, who served in senior positions in the territories for 30 years, is attempting to answer these questions.

"The vast majority of Hamas founders and leaders were refugees or second generation refugees, and some of them were the product of marriages between Egyptians and Palestinians. They had no money at all. When they and Hamas were just starting out, the organization (not in its own name) was nurtured by the Israeli military government, which fostered the Islamic associations working in the Gaza Strip as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Their phenomenal wealth started accumulating when they decided to disassociate themselves from Israel and search for alternative financing sources."

Elad explains that the money came from two directions: "Legacies from the deceased; money from charity funds; a donation called zaka, one of the six pillars of Islam; and donations from various countries. It started with Syria and Saudi Arabia, with Iran added later and becoming one of Hamas's biggest supporters, and ended with Qatar, which has now taken Iran's place."

Together with the donations from various countries, fundraisers began operating in the US to collect money for Hamas. Here, the Hamas leaders began to get their hands on some really big money. "One of those fundraisers was Dr. Musa Abu Marzook, the number 2 man in Hamas," Elad says. "At the beginning of the 1990s, he began a fundraising campaign in the US among wealthy Muslims, while at the same time founding several banking enterprises. He himself became a conglomerate of 10 financial enterprises giving loans and making financial investments. He's an amazing financier."

The US administration ordered Marzook's arrest in 1995 on charges of supporting terrorism. After he spent two years in a US prison, it was decided to expel him without trial. He kept the money. "When he was expelled from the US in 1997, he was already worth several million dollars," Elad says, adding, "Somehow he evaded the clutches of the US Internal Revenue Service and was not charged with financing terrorism. People in the know say he probably became connected to the administration and cooperated with it. There is no proof, but it's hard to think of any other reason why he escaped punishment for such serious offenses. In 2001, in the investigation of the September 11 events, it turned out that he had extensive financial connections with Al Qaeda, including the transfer of funds to the 21 Al Qaeda operatives accused of the attacks."

Today, Marzook is considered one of Hamas's wealthiest billionaires. "Arab sources estimate his wealth at $2-3 billion," Elad says.

Another Hamas leader-turned-tycoon is Khaled Mashaal. "Estimates around the world are that Mashaal is currently worth $2.6 billion, but the numbers mentioned by the Arab commentators (based on their many sources) are much higher, varying from $2-5 billion invested in Egyptian and Persian Gulf banks, and some in real estate projects in the Persian Gulf countries," Elad adds.

The next tycoon on the list is Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. "He is a scion of a family from the Al-Shati refugee camp, and his capital is estimated at $4 million," Elad says, adding, "He registered most of his assets in the Gaza Strip in the name of his son-in-law, Nabil, and in the name of a dozen of his sons and daughters and a few less well known Hamas leaders. They all have homes in good neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip, where the value of every home is at least $1 million."

Another wealthy Hamas official - Iman Taha - is not on the organization's highest levels, but he, too, (and other junior managers) is feeding from the trough. According to Elad, "He was a poor rebellious kid from the al-Borg refugee camp, but he recently built a home in central Gaza worth at least $1 million. He's responsible for coordination between oversea Hamas and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and he's not even a leading figure, but he's already among the millionaires."

The question of where these officials got their money exposes the corrupt system used by Hamas through its control of the money pipelines in the Gaza Strip. They treated the money as their own personal possession. "Most of the money that went into the pockets of people in the Gaza Strip was obtained through tunnel deals and the creation of a flourishing smuggling market, which it is believed has created several hundred millionaires in the Gaza Strip, although most of the people there don't live like that. The man pulling the strings from Egypt with the tunnels is none other than the number two man in the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat el-Shater. His connection with Hamas was ostensibly for Islamic religious purposes, but they actually built a prosperous business, which earned phenomenal profits," Elad says.

The Asharq Al-Awsat (Middle East) newspaper, one of the most prestigious in the Arab world, recently reported that at least 600 millionaires were living in the Gaza Strip - the same people sitting on the money pipelines there.

Elad describes how the system worked and to how much money (huge amounts) Hamas leaders were exposed: "Senior Hamas leaders charged a 25% 'tax' and $2,000 on every disassembled vehicle coming through the tunnels. There are hundreds of smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza, and these are the types of tunnel Israel has been less busy in destroying, because Egypt has destroyed many of them. From June 2007 until 2010, $800 million in cash was transferred in tunnel deals (according to information from Hamas money traders). Hamas also taxes Gaza merchants on everything traded, from boxes of vegetables to luxury cars, and the leaders scoop the money into their pockets."

Another source of wealth for Hamas leaders was taking over land. "They took over land mainly near the sea in good areas, such as the former Gush Katif, then sold it. In effect, they are the cat guarding the cream - the land - so they were able to take over land and loot it for themselves," Elad explains.

In addition, there is a system in the Gaza Strip of fictitious recruitment of workers for Hamas for the purpose of obtaining pay slips from people overseas paying for it. "They get the payments from overseas according to the workers' names. It has recently been discovered that there are hundreds of fictitious names of soldiers and officials supposedly in Hamas. Actually, the leaders and officials put the money in their own pockets," Elad asserts.

According to various sources, some of Mashaal's money came from the "Syrian fund." Elad explains: "According to these accusations, following an investigation by the US federal authorities, Mashaal was accused of embezzling the entire Syrian fund. There was a separate fund in Syria for Hamas; Mashaal controlled all the movements in the fund when he lived there. As soon as he left Damascus, he took the Syrian fund, which was worth several billion dollars, and distributed it to himself and others. It is believed that Hamas had $1.5-2.5 billion in assets in Syria, which Mashaal took."

In summary, Elad says, "This is corruption at the highest level… What has united the Palestinian leaders all throughout the years is the saying, 'We have to get rich quick.' This is how the regime sees it. Their leaders have no shame. Shortly after they got power, they took control of fuel, communications, and any other profitable sectors in the country. There are get-rich-quick schemes and corruption in Western society, too, but there it's done sophisticatedly with envelopes of money and complex structures of bribery and the like. Among the Palestinians, they tell you straight out, 'I want to get rich.'"

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 24, 2014

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2014

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Khaled Mashaal  picture: Reuters
Khaled Mashaal picture: Reuters
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