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Schools and orphanages in Hebron still threatened with closure

April 9, 2008 4:59 P.M. (Updated: April 9, 2008 4:59 P.M.)
Hebron - Ma'an - Twelve-year-old Muhammad Abu Snaineh has a face that can only be described as cherubic. He was raised by Palestinian-American parents in Houston, Texas until the age of eight, when his family, wanting to give their son a sense of his cultural roots, moved to the West Bank city of Hebron. Muhammad's first language is English, but is excelling in Arabic, and wants to be an engineer when he grows up.

The Israeli military views Muhammad as a potential terrorist. Israel is attempting to shut down two Islamic charities in Hebron, including one that operates Muhammad's school, alleging that both organizations are linked to Hamas. Together the Muslim Youth Society and the Islamic Charitable Society serve thousands of children through eight schools, orphanages, social services, and sports clubs.

On 25 February Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, the Israeli military commander in charge of the West Bank, ordered the two charities to be closed and their properties seized. Hijazi Al-Jaberi, the chair of the Muslim Youth Society says the Israeli military accused his organization of being controlled by Hamas, and even that Hamas profited from the services provided through the Hebron facilities. The case is currently being fought in the Israeli High Court of Justice.

If the order is implemented, the charities say, hundreds of orphans will become homeless, thousands of students will be left without schools, and thousands of needy families will go without assistance.

On 26 February and again on 24 March the Israeli military raided several buildings affiliated to the two charities, damaging and stealing food, computers, notebooks and other items, Al-Jaberi said. The first floor of the Muslim Youth Society's elementary school is a chaos of overturned desks and broken glass, the floors strewn with paper. The front doors of the building which were knocked off their hinges, had to be replaced. According to Abdul-Kareem Farrah, a legal advisor for the Islamic Charitable Society, the Israeli troops caused 1 million NIS (276,000 US dollars) worth of damage.

Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, says the case against the two charities is weak. "If those who claim that these organizations are supporting terrorists have evidence, let them present it," he said. "Also in the Jewish tradition, you can't have collective punishment . We demand that a solution be found where services continue to be provided," he added.

Regarding about the terrorism charges, twelve-year-old Muhammad says "That is such a lie! We are not like that!" Asked if his school trains students to use weapons, he says "we have never seen a bullet in here."

Muhammad gives the impression that the Muslim Youth Society school is slightly conservative, but certainly no hotbed of terrorism. "They really try to get the kids to be good and not to say bad words," Muhammad says. He adds that his history class mainly talks about the life of the Prophet, and does not even address 20th century events such as the creation of Israel.

Pressed on exactly why Israel would want to close the two charities, officials from the charities imply that a handful of people employed by the organizations may have been linked to Hamas. This, they are quick to note, is not the same as being controlled and operated by Hamas. "The Israelis resort to sweeping generalities and sweeping abstractions about Palestinian society. They have arrested people associated with Hamas, but that doesn't mean that the charity itself is connected with Hamas," said Khalid Aymareh, a Palestinian journalist who spoke at Monday's press conference.

According to the original military order, the two charities were supposed to be closed on 1 April, but the organizations appealed the case in the Israeli court system. On the morning of 2 April, they received word that the Israeli High Court of Justice asked the military to provide a legal justification for the decision. The court gave the military until 7 April to file their case. On Monday, the deadline, the military asked the court for an extension.

Aymareh says that the legal situation surrounding the two charities is in "a state of uncertainty." Indeed, there are so many contradictions in the case, beginning with the scarcity of evidence linking the charities to Hamas, that Aymareh sees a strategy of deliberate ambiguity: "There is a conspicuous element of haphazardness," he says.

Both charities are registered with the Palestinian Authority (PA), and are based in the section of Hebron that is supposedly under the full control of the Authority, not the Israeli military. Officials from the two societies contacted the Authority to inquire about the order, appears to be infringement on the PA's limited sovereignty. The PA's response, according to Al-Jaberi, was "We'll do our best." Farah, the Islamic Society's legal advisor, says only that "the posture of the PA has been disappointing."

The PA's security forces, spokespersons of the charities say, would be no match for the Israeli troops anyway. The only physical protection accorded to the threatened schools and orphanages is a group of international volunteers from Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an organization that practices third-party nonviolent intervention in conflict situations around the world. CPT human rights workers have been sleeping in the Islamic Society's schools for days. If Israeli troops raid the schools again, CPT workers will videotape any abuses. Asked if CPT will physically confront Israeli soldiers, CPT activist Art Arbour says, "If they get violent, we'll get in the way."

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