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Inside Hamas’s sprawling financial empire


Hamas has three sources of power: its physical force within Gaza, the reach of its ideas and its income. Since the Hamas attack on October 7, Israel has killed more than 12,000 Palestinians in Gaza in its attempt to destroy the former. But Israel’s stated goal of destroying Hamas for good also requires its financial foundation to be dismantled. Little of this sits in Gaza at all. Instead, it is abroad in friendly countries. Equipped with money launderers, mining companies and more, Hamas’s financial empire is estimated to bring in more than $1bn a year. Having been careful to avoid Western sanctions, it could be out of reach of Israel and its allies.

Hamas’s income pays for everything from school teachers’ salaries to missiles. About $360m a year comes from import taxes on goods brought into Gaza from the West Bank or Egypt. This is the easiest source of money for Israel to choke. After withdrawing from the strip in 2005, he strictly restricted the movement of goods and people across the border. Now it stops even the essentials from entering. –

A much larger stream of income, however, comes from abroad. Israeli officials estimate this to be around $750m per year, making it the main source of funding for Hamas’ current stockpile of weapons and fuel. Some of them come from friendly governments, the biggest being Iran. America estimates that the ayatollahs provide $100m to Palestinian Islamic groups, mainly in military aid. The task of Hamas financiers is to move this money around without falling prey to American sanctions. In the past month alone, American officials have imposed three rounds of restrictions on people and companies funding Hamas.

Avoiding American sanctions requires some ingenuity. Millions of dollars flow to Hamas through crypto markets. “You’d be surprised how much market activity comes back to him [Hamas]” says Firuze Segzin, an economist at Bilkent University. The US treasury department says Hamas has smuggled more than $20m through Redin, a currency exchange crammed among tourist shops deep in Istanbul’s crumbling Fatih neighborhood.

But the lion’s share of Hamas’ money—at least $500m a year, Israeli officials say—comes from its investments, some of which are businesses registered in countries across the Middle East. These are run by professionals from the Hamas investment office and employ its members. American officials say the firms give to charities that funnel funds to Hamas; Turkish officials say profits are sometimes taken directly. It is difficult for Western regulators to sort out these revenue streams. One such firm built Afra Mall, Sudan’s first shopping mall, and another mined near its capital, Khartoum. The third skyscrapers built in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Many of the companies boast of their business deals, but deny affiliation with Hamas.

Can Hamas choke off any remaining revenue streams? That depends on the countries through which they flow. Since 1989, when Israel captured a handful of Hamas’ top brass in Gaza and the West Bank, its bankers have lived abroad. Over time, however, geopolitical changes forced them to keep moving. Hamas abandoned its first financial hub, Amman, after Jordan’s ties to America grew too close.

Today, while Hamas politicians favor Doha, the capital of Qatar, and its companies range from Algeria and Sudan to the UAE, its financiers live in Istanbul. Zaher Jabarin, who is accused by Israel of running the finances of Hamas (which he denies), is based there, as are many other individuals under American sanctions for financing the organization. He is eager to gain regional influence by supporting the Palestinian cause, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, offers shelter. Israel says the Turkish government issues passports (which it denies) and allows Hamas to hold office in the country.

Meanwhile, the Turkish banking system helps Hamas evade American sanctions by conducting complex transactions around the world. A booming, lightly regulated crypto market helps. Many of Turkey’s largest banks, including Kuveyt Turk, have been accused by Israel and America of knowingly storing Hamas cash. Some murmur that Mr. Erdogan quietly approves. In 2021 the Financial Action Task Force, a G7 watchdog, put Turkey on its “grey list” of countries that have done too little to freeze terrorist assets.

No one benefits more than Hamas businessmen. “The tacit approval of the Turkish government opens doors and makes things smooth in business”, says one of the group’s financial employees.Trend GYO, an Istanbul-listed firm that has been sanctioned by America for giving funds to Hamas, a contract official to build the Istanbul University of Commerce Construction companies, which make up a large part of Hamas’s portfolio, can quietly swallow huge lumps of money, and regularly take out large loans This allows Turkish officials to say that they are not directly lining the pockets of Hamas.

So far, Hamas seems bulletproof financially. Israel did little damage to its income or savings; The Turkish banks were uncooperative. America’s numerous sanctions are less effective if their targets can keep cash outside its banking system. And Hamas hides its companies well. “Every time you think you’ve got a big fish, it changes its name,” despairs a former Treasury official.

Indeed, there is a risk that Hamas’s finances will improve. As Israel continues its attacks on Gaza, Western governments may be dealing with the humanitarian horror. Countries with pro-Palestinian populations may find it even easier for Hamas to earn money. For months, rumors have circulated that some civil servants in Mr. Erdogan’s economic ministry are coordinating with Hamas’ finance office.

In Israel’s case, Hamas would be getting richer despite the war being a disaster. With its wealth and financial roots intact, it or a similar organization may do well after the destruction. Meanwhile, Gazans have been drawn into the tragedy so that Israel can destroy a group whose money and power are safely kept elsewhere. Compare their situation with the picture in Istanbul: eating lobster and looking at the Bosphorus.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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