HEBRON, West Bank – To Palestinian widow Nayfa Shatat, a mother of 11, this city's biggest Islamic charity is a lifeline. It gives her daughters a first-class education and sustains her family with food coupons.
To Israel, the Islamic Charitable Association is a front for the militant Hamas, promoting the movement's violent ideology in its private schools and funding militant activity against Israel.
Now the Israeli military says it will close down the association's operations, which include a boarding school for 600 disadvantaged children, several day schools, a bakery and a women's sewing cooperative.
Early Wednesday, Israeli army troops raided the sewing workshop, seizing sewing machines and bolts of cloth, witnesses said. The army said the workshop was used to raise money for militants.
It's part of an intensified crackdown on Hamas by Israel and the West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from Abbas' forces last June, and neither Israel nor Abbas want to see a repeat in the West Bank.
In recent months, Israeli troops and Abbas' forces have gone after West Bank charities, moneychangers, women's cooperatives and media outlets with suspected ties to the militants.
However, closing the Hebron association is more delicate because it serves thousands of children.
The closure would deny services to the poor at a time when Abbas' government is not always able to fund an alternative. Hamas has built up a large network of schools, clinics and welfare offices in the past two decades, deepening its roots in Palestinian society as a key provider of social services.
The closure might hamper Hamas' ability to deliver services, but will also taint Abbas, said political scientist Salah Abdel Jawad.
"Israel is weakening Palestinian society. It's harming the most vulnerable group of Palestinians," he said. "Hamas is hemorrhaging (popularity), but Israel isn't strengthening Mahmoud Abbas this way."
The association's attorney, Abdel Karim Farah, has appealed the military's closure orders, but Israel's Supreme Court hasn't set a hearing date yet. Officials in the Abbas government said they were also trying to reverse the closure order, but did not provide details.
Shatat, the widow, said she'd be lost without the charity. "I can't provide for my children the way the association does," said Shatat, who lost her husband to cancer two years ago.
Two of her daughters, ages 9 and 10, attend the charity's boarding school, which largely caters to children from single-parent families, mostly widows. Four other children attend a public school, but rely on the charity for food aid and school supplies. The other children are no longer in school.
Other than the handouts, the family scrapes by on about $200 (euro130) a month earned by her oldest son.
At the boarding school, students get a free education, hot meals, food coupons for their families and transportation home every weekend. In addition, the charity runs schools and nurseries for 6,400 day students, about half of whom study for free.
Israel accuses the association of teaching children Islamic extremism and of financing violent acts. "Hamas invests a lot into the education of children ... to teach them extremism ... and recruit them to terror acts. The system is clear-cut, it's meant to finance that," said Maj. Avital Leibowich, an army spokesman.
Association staff say they aren't a Hamas front.
They say the association was founded in 1962, five years before Israel captured the West Bank, and that it registered first with Israel's military government and later with the Palestinian Authority.
The charity has assets valued at about $10 million (euro6.4 million), including a cattle farm, rental apartments, bakeries and commercial real estate, said Farah, the lawyer. It also receives millions of dollars from donors in wealthy Gulf states to help cover monthly costs of $635,000 (euro400,000).
Farah said Israeli forces have so far confiscated thousands of dollars worth of associationproperty.
Hamas officials denied direct involvement in the charity, though they said they support its work.
The charity's schools teach four Islamic lessons a week, the same as the state schools. But there is a clear Islamic bent in the boarding school. On a recent afternoon, a social worker in a robe and traditional Muslim headscarf ushered giggling girls in pink-painted rooms to prayer.
Amal Abu Habdiyeh, 11, has lived in the boarding school since her father died five years ago. She said she'd feel out of place in a public school. "If I go to a public school, there'll be no orphans, and the children will talk about their happy homes," she said.
The boarding school has received outside help.
Volunteers from Christian Peacemakers, a group of American and Canadian pacifists who work in hotspots, sleep in the dorm in shifts in hope of deterring the army from shutting down the facility.
"We are convinced there is no connection between the charity and Hamas," said Art Arbour, a 65-year-old retired school principle from Canada.
The children and the women who rely on the institution are clearly worried.
Shatat said that without the boarding school, her daughters would swiftly be married off once they hit their late teens— simply because she cannot afford to educate them.
"If my girls were to come home, I'd be happy, but it would be a big burden for me. I can't provide for them the way they do here," Shatat said.