Until three months ago they and thousands of others received a monthly allowance from charitable societies both within Palestine and without.

But many Muslim charities have either been closed down or had their assets frozen pending a lengthy investigation into their suspected links with Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group responsible for attacks on Israel.
 
The man of Abu Zneid household was killed by jittery Israeli soldiers at a roadblock five years ago while returning from work in Israel.

Since then they have relied on charity funding to get by, but now even that trickle of income has dried up, they told Aljazeera.net.

International pressure, primarily from the United States, is growing to freeze funding sources for Islamic charities over suspected financial links to guerrilla groups.

The charities have vigorously denied such connections, claiming that their books are open to scrutiny and no accusations have ever been made to stick.

The policy of strangling charities in the name of combating resistance organisations is counterproductive, they say. Being denied basic services makes ordinary Palestinians more likely to sympathise with groups like Hamas, not less.

Aid and schools
 
The Islamic Charitable Society in Hebron is the largest philanthropic institution in the West Bank.
 
It takes care of about 5000 orphans and their families. Its services include a boarding school for some 2500 children, as well as food and health care provisions.
 

“We track down every penny, where it comes from and how it is spent, our budgets and financial operations are open for anybody”

Sami Nasseruddin,
Head of Hebron-based Nasseruddin Auditing Firm

“Without our services, thousands of boys and girls would become a burden on society. Our job is to raise them well and give them hope and good schooling,” says Khalil Hirbawi, who is in charge of the Orphans Care Department at the Islamic Charitable Society.
 
“Many of the orphans we cared for are now successful professionals including doctors, physicians, engineers and businessmen. We are proud of that; it gives us an additional incentive to keep up the good work,” she said.
 
Like every other charity official who agreed to speak to Aljazeera.net, Hirbawi vehemently denies any financial irregularities or links to political groups.
 
“Our books are open for anybody interested in knowing the truth. Every penny we receive and every penny we spend goes through meticulous bookkeeping by a certified public accountant.”
 
Auditors report transparency

This is backed up by Sami Nasseruddin, head of the Hebron-based Nasseruddin Auditing Firm, who has said operations of charitable institutions are characterised by “complete transparency”.
 
“We track every penny, where it comes from and how it is spent, our budgets and financial operations are open for anybody,” he said.
 
Asked to comment on Israeli charges that the charities linked to Hamas use some of their revenues to finance military operations against Israel, Nasseruddin said “I haven’t been able to find any evidence supporting or corroborating these charges. I challenge the Israeli government to produce any evidence supporting their claims.”

“I can testify that in the past 10 years, not a single loophole was discovered in the financial operations of these charities,” he said.

Food seizure

This claim of transparency is not enough to satisfy Israel and  the US. Several months ago, the Israeli army ordered the Israeli Ports Authority to confiscate a canned food shipment donated to orphans of the Hebron district by an Australian charity called Human Appeal International.
 

“Israel is waging total war on the Palestinians. If Israel feels no compunction about killing Palestinian kids, it won’t refrain from starving them as well”

Israeli Peace-Now activist

When asked why the shipment of 2200 boxes, each containing 24 tins of canned meat, had been withheld at the Ashdod port since 25 March, an Israeli “Civil” Authority spokesman cited “security reasons.”
 
However, when pressed on the subject, the spokesperson said “it is we who decide, not you.”
 
An Israeli activist in the Peace-Now movement told Aljazeera.net, “Israel is waging total war on the Palestinians. If Israel feels no compunction about killing Palestinian kids, it won’t refrain from starving them as well.”

The activist asked that his name not be mentioned.
 
International charities frozen
 
Some of the families most affected by the sanctions against Palestinian charitable institutions live in the Durra region.
 
According to Samir Rabai’e, Secretary of the Durra Alms Committee, some families have not received financial aid for the past year and a half.
 
He cited 18 families in Durra who used to receive a monthly stipend from the US-based Holy Land Foundation, which was closed down and had its assets frozen by the Bush Administration.
 
“This means that 18 families are now experiencing abject poverty through no fault of their own.”

Rabai’e  says his committee, which serves an area inhabited by as many as 70,000 people in the West Hebron hills, is trying to find alternative sources “to keep hunger away” for the time being.
 
“We have adopted a stiff austerity program whereby we help only the worst possible cases,” he says, adding, “I am afraid that unless the situation is reversed in one way or the other, we will soon begin to witness real starvation.”
 
PA efforts

In August the Palestinian Authority (PA), under pressure from the United States, froze the bank accounts of 39 charities in the Gaza Strip. Those foundations took care of the needs of about 7000 orphans alone, providing them a monthly stipend of $30 each.
 
The next day, hundreds of former beneficiaries, including many wheelchair-bound people and widows, demonstrated in the streets of Gaza.

Hamas spiritual leader Shaikh Yassin set up many charities

One mother of 12,  Hanan Jariss, said she used to receive 800 shekels ($190) monthly from the targeted Al-Mujamma al-Islami group, which was set up in the 1970s by Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, the spiritual leader and founder of Hamas.

"This step will make me unable to feed my children," she said. "The Palestinian Authority gives me nothing."
 
Eventually, under public pressure, the PA was forced to unfreeze the bank accounts and allow beneficiaries to receive their allowances.
 
A few years ago, the PA sought to take over all charitable societies in the West Bank and Gaza in an effort to undercut public support for Hamas and other Islamic groups in Palestine.
 
However, the attempt proved to be a failure as donors, concerned about corruption, stopped donating money to the charities. Eventually, the PA abandoned its efforts and allowed Islamists to continue running the charities.
 
'Policy of starvation'

Last month, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, accused Israel of preventing Palestinians from reaching food and water in many parts of the occupied territories.
 
“The humanitarian catastrophe that is emerging in the occupied territories must be reversed,” the Swiss sociologist said.

“There can be no justification for harsh internal closures that prevent people from having access to food and water, otherwise the imposition of such military measures are amounting to what has been called a policy of starvation,” he added.
 
Palestinian charities received some vindication last month. A London-based charity that the US and Israel claimed had links with Hamas was cleared of any wrongdoing, following a thorough investigation by the UK Charity Commission.
 
INTERPAL, an organisation dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to thousands of Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, had been subjected to a smear campaign by the British Jewish Board of Deputies.

The efforts eventually prompted the freezing of the charity’s assets by the British government. This move has been reversed in the light of the Commission's findings.