Withdrawing cash at a Gaza ATM.
Tomer Ganon

TEL AVIV — Last February, a court in Jerusalem ordered a seven-year prison sentence for Kifah Sarhan, a senior Hamas official based in Jerusalem, on charges of membership in a terror organization and dealing with property for terrorism.

A resident of East Jerusalem and member of the organization's advisory council, Sarhan had a key position in the cell that was active in late 2010. He was in charge of fundraising for financing the organization's activity in Jerusalem, including visits to families of Shahids' ("martyrs") and political prisoners. The funds raised were also used to purchase a building to establish a school in the At-Tur neighborhood in a bid to prevent Jews from purchasing the same building — as well as support for other educational institutes and needy families.

Hamas is labeled as a terrorist organization nearly everywhere around the world. Therefore, it is impossible for the organization to receive funds through legal and legitimate means such as bank transactions and foreign currency transactions. Consequently, it has developed a range of tactics over the years to enable channeling money from its various overseas cells to Gaza.

According to February's court ruling, Sarhan located traders who agreed to smuggle with them amounts of 500,000 Jordanian Dinar ($704,000) from Jordan to Jerusalem without attracting the attention of the authorities. This money was used for financing prohibited activity.

Smuggling of money by traders is a relatively simple example for the tactics the Hamas leadership has developed to funnel money to the organization in Gaza, the West Bank and inside Israel, as Israeli banks have refused to allow money transactions to and from Gaza fearing it will be used for funding terrorism.

These tactics have become increasingly sophisticated since 2010, a recent report from the Israel Money Laundering and Terror Financing Prohibition Authority (IMPA) found.

IMPA is an intelligence body that processes, crosschecks and links reports on hundreds of thousands of financial transactions every year originating from Israeli tax authorities, banks, credit card companies, currency exchange agencies and the postal service.

The information it produces is then passed on to investigation authorities such as the police and the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, to thwart money laundering and terrorism. In 2013, about 17% of the cases IMPA had passed on to investigation authorities have raised suspicions of terror-related financial activities.

Intended for orphanages

Still, it remains difficult to verify that these funds are used to finance terror activity because Hamas maintains a comprehensive system of charities, orphanages, soup kitchens and other activities to help the civilian population.

Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam and millions of Muslims give 10% of their savings to donations every year. Yet, part of this money ends up financing terror without donors' being aware of it.

Another method for financing terror that IMPA had identified in past years is international commerce. According to one of its studies, terrorist elements have been using various business owners and traders for illicit fund transfers to Gaza.

This tactic, uncovered in 2008, has led to the indictment of two Israeli firms that traded foodstuff and customs representation. This is how it worked: Hamas leadership buys different goods, mostly basic food items, abroad for very low prices or even for free. It then employs straw men to contract a private company to import the goods to Israeli ports and then transfer them to the Palestinian territories. A local distributor, who is in fact a Hamas operative, receives the shipment and later sells the goods. The high revenues, thanks to the large profit margins, then go to terrorists' coffers.

An additional pattern the IMPA study discovered was the use of accounts owned by diplomatic missions. Financial statements of an unidentified embassy, received by the agency, revealed a large number of transfers from its account to various elements in the Palestinian Authority, including those in Gaza.

An analysis has shown that one beneficiary was an entity suspected in facilitating money transfers to Hamas. IMPA believes the embassy's transactions were made innocently, in what looked to be legitimate payments, without it being aware it could be aiding terror.

These tactics were identified by IMPA in the course of a review of financial transactions reporting as required by standing regulations. However, authorities are also looking elsewhere, including an emerging source of funding for terrorism in criminal activity, such as drug trade and the manufacture of counterfeit pharmaceuticals — activities that obviously go unreported, and whose extent is unknown.

According to sources in the enforcement authorities, it's a simple equation. Drugs and fake medicine sold in Israel are often distributed by elements related to terrorist organizations such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. And so, ironically, it is Israelis' money that indirectly helps finance the same organizations that target them.

Foiling terror finances has major importance in the efforts to thwart the activities themselves, IMPA says. The paradox is that the bigger a terrorist organization is, and the more complex its activities are, the more money it needs to maintain its operations, and this can make it easier for the authorities to crack down on illegal financing.

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Society

Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe


BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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