By Adnan Abu Amer*
Palestinians are dependent on banks and currency exchange offices in their financial transactions, such as receiving cash transfers from employers and relatives, and perhaps even for financial transfers sent by factions based abroad to their members inside Palestine. Such transactions sometimes face harsh policies imposed by the Palestinian Authority on banks and exchange offices due to their fears that the money will reach individuals and organisations that the PA views as pro-Hamas.
Informed Palestinian political sources have revealed that a number of large financial transactions — worth millions of dollars — sent to personal accounts and palestinian organisations for the purpose of committing anti-PA activities have been blocked. According to the sources, the security agencies have now tightened their monitoring of these accounts and the work of the banks to prevent money being transferred to anti-PA groups.
This news is related to the crisis in the Palestinian territories raging since May 2015 between public charities and the PA. It includes the Palestinian banks’ freezing of financial transfers sent to charities on the orders of PA security officials. Such moves are one way that political motives are being used to punish the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the charities working in the enclave.
The PA’s pressure on the banks has affected 31 charities, with a further 50 having their new account applications refused; hundreds of transfers from external donor countries have been returned. These charities have been affected negatively by losing their funds in this way as they are no longer able to provide their usual services. By blocking financial transfers, the PA has put a stop on sponsorship payments for 40,000 orphans and poor, disabled and ill individuals. An estimated $2 billion in charitable payments has been blocked so far. This is affecting institutions as well as individuals, with 11 schools for orphans and the disabled — catering for 9,000 pupils — having essential funding blocked by the PA. To this must be added the 20 health centres which depend on charitable funding to provide essential healthcare to up to half-a-million patients every year, as well as the 7,000 university students deprived of financial support for their studies.
There is a prevalent belief amongst the Palestinians that the PA considers these charities as an important financial resource for Hamas; even if the movement does not directly benefit from them, they relieve it of a large financial burden. This is because it sponsors tens of thousands of needy families in Gaza, and so fills a large gap left by the siege imposed by Israel and the PA on Hamas for ten years. This pushes the Fatah-controlled PA to impose restrictions on banks and charities in order to score political points against Hamas.
The PA’s measures regarding the monitoring of personal and charity bank accounts has intensified since the beginning of this year, especially for transactions of more than half-a-million dollars.
Many Palestinians have complained about this encroachment by the PA security agencies on purely humanitarian matters taken care of by charities. In addition, the banks operating in Gaza now refuse to approve signatures of the Interior Ministry in Gaza on bank accounts.
This financial monitoring is not limited to banks, but also extends to the currency exchange offices spread across the occupied Palestinian territories. A number of these offices in the West Bank have been subject to Israeli raids from time to time on suspicion of transferring money to Hamas activists. The PA security agencies arrested a journalist from Ramallah on charges of smuggling hundreds of thousands of shekels to Hamas through transfer offices. Many Palestinian journalists have also had their employers’ transfers frozen on the orders of the Palestinian security agencies.
The owners of currency offices in the West Bank say that since the beginning of 2016 they have received instructions from the Palestinian security agencies to blacklist some individuals and organisations and refuse to hand over their financial transfers. They also claim that the list is updated with new names from time to time, and that any transfer over $2,000 sent to any Palestinian citizen must be approved by the security agencies and the source of the transfer must be known, despite the fact that some of these transfers are sent to families of martyrs, prisoners and orphans.
It is clear that the banks and currency offices have become the new front in the confrontation between Hamas and the PA, with the latter finding more means to intensify the siege on the Islamic movement. Meanwhile, Hamas is experiencing a suffocating financial crisis and is trying to manage its affairs in Gaza by means of a number of unprecedented austerity measures. Does anyone care about the effect this has on ordinary Palestinians in desperate need?