Bad charity

In Short

Hamas has diversified its income streams to carry out its horrible misdeeds. Among its most insidious tactics is its financing via charitable giving.

Hamas, the perpetrator of the deadliest attack in Israel’s history, is a terrorist group with a highly diversified financial portfolio. Since its designation by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in 1997, Hamas has continually adapted to maintain and grow its wealth. Recent reports have focused on Hamas’ utilization of cryptocurrency to fund its misdeeds, and think tanks and governments have documented the organization’s financial links to state actors like Turkey, Qatar and, most notably, Iran

Just as important, and perhaps more sinister, are Hamas’ most creative revenue generators: “charities” created by Hamas as fronts for fundraising terror, and the extortion of legitimate charities by virtue of the group’s complete control over the Gaza Strip. 

I spent most of my career, inside and outside the U.S. government, dedicated to countering terrorist financing. The concept that money is fungible — that it can be spent on an activity or goods other than that for which it was originally intended — is core to the work of fighting against illicit financing. While a seemingly legitimate charity may certainly engage in “good” work that helps those suffering from socioeconomic hardships, it can at the same time give terrorist groups access to financial capital. This is why countering terrorist abuse of charities is among the thorniest of issues for governments. 

But it is not a new one. 

For nearly 20 years, Hamas has been responsible for governing Gaza. During that time, Hamas has benefited by gaining access to funds through its establishment of domestic and international charities. Indeed, these groups may be providing important relief to innocent civilians, but at the same time they allow Hamas to direct funds away from social welfare to its militaristic activities. This is something that state governments and international bodies like the Financial Action Task Force try to stop. 

Hamas is not alone in using charities to fund their terrorist activities. The bulk of al-Qaeda’s funding for the 9/11 attacks came from its worldwide network of charities. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) used its U.S.-based Northern Irish Aid (NORAID) to fund attacks in Northern Ireland. Just as the IRA appealed to Irish Americans via NORAID, Hamas has created charities in Europe that receive significant funds from Palestinians, amongst others. Some governments and supranational political bodies, like the European Union, are reticent to acknowledge — let alone counter — the vast charity network of Hamas. 

I witnessed this reluctance firsthand in the case of a terrorist charity that goes by a deceptive name: Union of Good. Also known as the Charity Coalition, the Union of Good is an umbrella organization consisting of over 50 Islamic charities and funds which funnel money to organizations belonging to Hamas. 

The Union of Good was sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2008 for its links to Hamas; specifically, that Union of Good funds would often be diverted funds to support the families of Hamas’ suicide bombers. The Treasury Department explained that Hamas leadership created the Union of Good in late 2000s after the start of the Second Intifada to “facilitate funds to Hamas.” It existed not only so charitable donations could be diverted to support Hamas members, but also to dispense charitable services on behalf of the organization. In this way, the charity served to simultaneously support Hamas terror and allow Hamas to garner goodwill among the civilian population.

Following the Treasury Department’s sanction of the Union of Good, I would travel to Europe and elsewhere for Gaza Counter-Arms Smuggling Initiative (GCASI) meetings. GCASI was a unique setting where the Americans, Europeans and Israelis would share information regarding financing and arms smuggling-related activity in the Gaza Strip. At the GCASI meetings, I would present joint U.S.-Israel findings about the Union of Good’s financial activities in Europe. I, and my colleagues in the U.S. government, asked our European counterparts to act against the Union of Good. The Europeans demurred. Ultimately, the Europeans canceled GCASI meetings in 2012 because of Israel’s Pillar of Defense campaign in Gaza. With the death of GCASI came the death of efforts to gain support for the Union of Good’s dismantlement. 

Sadly, the Union of Good is still relevant and continues to operate as an umbrella group that allows individuals to finance Hamas. In June, a father and daughter were arrested in the Netherlands for allegedly funneling 5.5 million euros to Hamas through a foundation. Less than two weeks ago, a Union of Good affiliate was operating in Italy, according to reporting by The Jerusalem Post. These are hallmarks of an active Union of Good presence — a presence that many in the U.S. government, including myself, were concerned about more than a decade ago. 

It is time for the European Union and international community to turn up the heat on Hamas’ network of charities. Hamas’ barbarism on Oct. 7 requires it. It is finally time for the EU to sanction the Union of Good and other Hamas-linked charities as terrorist groups. 

Philanthropic giving in Gaza is going to be difficult to justify until then. 

Jason Blazakis is a professor and director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He is a former director of the Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, and he is currently a Democratic candidate in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District.