One of the mysteries of the current war in Gaza can be seen in the photos coming out of the tiny enclave: On the one hand, there is the desolation and squalor of Gaza neighborhoods where hundreds of thousands of Gazans live, and on the other, pictures of the homes owned by Hamas’s top officials, complete with gym equipment and fancy furniture, or else images of the five-star hotel suites where they stay.
It’s quite a conundrum; just how did these new tycoons, who grew up in refugee camps and who wave the banner of helping their people, become so filthily rich in such a short space of time?
According to Dr. Moshe Elad, a Middle East expert from the Western Galilee Academic College, most of the founders of Hamas were refugees or direct descendants of refugees. “Some of them were born of intermarriages between Egyptians and Gazans, with no money at all. In its putative stage, the organization – not yet called Hamas – fed off the Israeli military establishment, which funded Islamic associations in Gaza in an effort to counterbalance Fatah. On the day they decided to cut ties with Israel and seek funding elsewhere, their phenomenal wealth started growing”.
The money, Elad told the Israeli financial newspaper Globes, came from several directions. “Donations by the families of people who dies, charity money, called ‘zakala’ in Arabic and the donations of various countries. It started with Syria, Saudi Arabia, then Iran, one of the main sponsors, and ended with Qatar which has today taken Iran’s place.”
There were also campaigns to raise money in the US. “Moussa Abu Marzouk,” Elad says, “started raising funds among the rich Muslims in America and also established several bank funds.” Over time he built a conglomerate of 10 financial operations “that give loans and conduct investments. He’s an amazing financier.”
In 1995 the US arrested Abu Marzouk for activities supporting terrorism and after two years in jail, he was deported without trial. But he kept the money. “This man was worth several millions already in 1997, when he was expelled,” Elad says. “Somehow he managed to elude the IRS and a trial for his offenses. Some say he made contacts in the administration. It is not proven, but it is hard to find another reason for how he managed to get away with such heavy accusations against him.”
“In 200, during the 9/11 probe, it was found that he had ties with al Qaeda including money transfers made to the 21 al Qaeda operatives accused of carrying out the attack.”
Today, Abu Marzouk is one of the major billionaires in Hamas. “Arab estimates peg his fortune at 2-3 billion dollars,” Elad says. Another senior-official-turned-terror-tycoon is Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas’s political wing. “Global estimates say Mashaal is worth $2.6 billion,” but Arab commentators, with other sources, say he is worth between 2 and 5 billion, “invested in Egyptian banks and Gulf countries, some in real estate projects.”
Next on the list is Ismail Haniyeh, who until the recent signing of a unity deal between Hamas and Fatah was the Prime Minister of Gaza. “His fortune is estimated at 4 million dollars, and most of his assets in the Strip are registered in the name of his son in law Nabil, and a dozen children of his and other less known Hamas officials,” Elad says.
According to Elad, Ayman Taha, a mid-tier official, “was born in desolate poverty at the El Buraj refugee camp, but recently built a house worth at least a million bucks. He is in charge of coordinating Hamas operations inside and outside the Gaza Strip and is not even a senior member, but he’s already a member of the millionaire club.”
Most of their money comes from misused donations to the Gaza Strip, since every dollar passes through Hamas’s pipeline. Elad assesses that smuggling of goods through tunnels generates hundreds of millions a year and those who control the siphon became wealthy along the way. There are several hundred millionaires in Gaza and there would be hundreds more if smuggling would continue unabated. The man pulling the strings in Egypt is Khirat el Shatr, who is No. 2 in the Muslim Brotherhood. His connection to Hamas is allegedly based on a shared religious outlook, “but in effect it’s a thriving business, with a revenue of millions.”
Pan-Arab London based paper, Asharq al Awsat, which is considered a reliable media outlet, recently ran a story saying there are 600 millionaires in Gaza. Elad explains how the corrupt officials charge: Every car load smuggled through the tunnels was taxed by a fixed sum of $2000 and additionally 25% of the value of goods. Between June 2007 and 2010 the tunnel smuggling business generated $800 million. Hamas also taxed all merchants in Gaza, from car retailers to sellers of fruit and vegetables. Hamas also took over lands and then resold them at a profit.
Hamas also apparently published fictitious names of employees to sponsors abroad and then scooped up their salaries and distributed them between a few senior members.
Corruption in Hamas, Elad says, is not just rampant but extrovert. “What’s unique about Palestinian leaders over the years is the motto ‘Get rich quick’. Leaders there have no shame. They take over crucial industries like communications and gasoline as soon as they take the reins. In Western society you also have people gaining wealth quickly and corruptly, but there it is usually done subtly with envelopes of cash and elaborate forms of bribery which are not easy to track down. But the Palestinians will say to your face: ‘I want to be rich’.”