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MIDEAST: Israel Could Make Orphans Homeless Again

Zack Baddorf

HEBRON, The West Bank, Apr 28 2008 (IPS) - Nibaal Shriteh may soon be homeless. The 17-year-old Palestinian lives in a Hebron orphanage but, if the Israeli military has its way, she and 240 fellow orphans like her will be out on the streets.

A Palestinian makes a point. Credit: Zack Baddorf

A Palestinian makes a point. Credit: Zack Baddorf

"I am talking to you today from this place, from my home, from my school, from my class," Shriteh told a handful of independent media and assembled local and international supporters at a press conference Apr. 7 inside the Al-Shar&#39iya Girls Orphanage. "But tomorrow I&#39ll be talking to you as a lonely, lost person from the street."

The Israel Defence Forces issued orders Feb. 25 for the closure and confiscation by Apr. 7 of orphanages, schools and other facilities owned by the Islamic Charitable Society (ICS), claiming the foundation "masquerades as a charity organisation in order to cover its activities of increasing support of the Hamas terror network."

"The foundation in Hebron not only raises money for terrorism, it also recruits new terror operatives and disseminates the creed of anti-Zionism and jihad among the population," an IDF spokesman told IPS.

The Israeli army told IPS that "all of the foundation&#39s resources are devoted to funding Hamas and Hamas&#39s grip on the region…and to strengthening the terrorist network in order to target Israel." One of the oldest non-governmental organisations in the occupied territories, the charitable association is also accused of training youths in jihad and Hamas principles.

The Feb. 25 military decree, signed by the Israeli military commander of the West Bank Gen. Gadi Shamni, states that the buildings must be closed to maintain "security of the area" and "general order" in the southern West Bank city.

"The allegations being levelled against us are totally and completely and absolutely baseless," said Abd al-Kareem Farah, the ICS legal representative, through an interpreter. "We challenge the Israeli government and the Israeli army to produce a single tangible evidence to corroborate their concocted allegations. So far they haven&#39t done that."

The 46-year-old charity filed an appeal with the Israeli High Court of Justice, which temporarily froze the order indefinitely Apr. 1 and required the Israeli army to present evidence proving ICS&#39s link with the militant organisation Hamas, which holds power in the Gaza Strip following elections two years ago.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, said Jewish tradition requires witnesses and evidence be brought forward before the court. Since no proof has yet been submitted, the military order is "incompatible with the Jewish concept of justice," he said.

"Our Jewish tradition also teaches us that you cannot have collective punishment and you cannot harm innocent people," Ascherman added. "Therefore, from a Jewish point of view, it&#39s simply wrong to create a situation where so many people are going to suffer."

Israeli soldiers returned to charity facilities Apr. 11 and told teachers they had until Apr. 13 to evacuate the buildings. But no move has yet been made by the IDF to force a closure.

"For right now, no news is good news," Joanne Lingle, spokesperson for the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) told IPS, describing the situation as a state of "limbo."

CPT works to "support violence reduction efforts around the world." Members of Lingle&#39s team in Hebron sleep in the orphanage once every few days to document and report any potential actions by the Israeli armed forces. The military order states anyone entering or using the buildings may be imprisoned for five years and have his property confiscated or demolished.

Rasheed Rasheed, an English teacher at the charity&#39s school for boys, told IPS he has not seen "any action" by Hamas in ICS facilities in the 12 years he&#39s worked there.

"I am not Hamas. I am not Fatah. I smoke. I am not a fanatic. I am a normal person! I have no hatred for Israel or for anybody else. I am just a teacher," 37-year-old Rasheed told IPS. "I have never been told to tell my students to hate Israelis or Jews or to kill or to teach them violence. Never ever."

Rasheed admits that about 20-25 of the total 550 employees working for the ICS do have ties with the Hamas political party, but maintains the organisation has no formal connection with the militant group.

"The Israeli government has some fanatic members," said Rasheed. "Can I say that the Israeli government is all a terrorist government? I cannot say this!"

The Israeli military claims the ICS has "delivered money to Hamas terrorist operatives" and "supported the families of suicide bombers and incarcerated terrorists." But Farah said the association has its financial records and accounts "meticulously" scrutinised by Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

"Every penny that comes in and every penny that is spent, we have records," said the ICS lawyer. "It&#39s completely transparent…We are functioning in broad daylight. We have nothing to conceal. We have nothing to hide. All our papers are available for anyone who wishes to know the truth."

About 15-20 percent of the charity&#39s funding is raised from local sources, Farah noted, while the rest comes from abroad, mostly from North America, Europe and the Middle East.

The Israeli armed forces raided the organisation&#39s warehouse, bakeries and storefronts Mar. 6, and confiscated food, clothing, school supplies, refrigerators and two buses.

Farah says the Israeli authorities have no right to confiscate the property. The charity&#39s location in Hebron puts it under Palestinian authority, and this means the Israeli authorities cannot confiscate property there, according to the Oslo Accords, an agreement signed in 1993 by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

It&#39s not just a legal fight anymore.

Mohammad Jamal Salhab, deputy head of the Islamic Student Association, said Israeli troops have "terrorised" the youths with fear and uncertainty. Some children have been having nightmares and are showing signs of stress, he said, while their academic performance has been "undermined".

"Right now there is an overwhelming state of tension and stress among the kids and, frankly, we don&#39t know what to do," Salhab told IPS. "The harm to the children cannot be underestimated."

Orphan Shriteh said she is worried what will happen if the court rules against ICS, which the IDF terms an illegal organisation.

"Who will put the happiness in our hearts? Who will protect us from being lost? Who will be our shelter in the days of winter?" asked Shriteh at the Apr. 7 press conference, representing the orphans. "We hope the echo of our voice will reach your hearts to show you our grief and misery."

The Israeli military told IPS it "reserves the right for future action" against the ICS schools and orphanages. Rasheed is still unsure why the IDF wants the orphanage closed.

"The Israelis should give me an answer," Rasheed told IPS. "These are orphans. They have no hand in this issue between Hamas and the Israeli government. If the order takes place, they will end up on the street. They have no place to go."

The ICS, which was founded 26 years before Hamas, educates more than 1,700 students, aids 4,000 additional students and 5,000 poor families, and shelters 240 orphans.

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