GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Israeli Security Agency says it has dismantled a Hamas cell, made up mostly of women, in Hebron in the southern West Bank.
The agency said Aug. 28 that over the previous few weeks it had arrested seven women it claims were recruiting members and coordinating events in mosques, working to expand Hamas' popular base and spreading incitement on social media websites. The cell, the agency said, also had been helping prisoners' families, trying to influence municipal affairs in Hebron, running charitable institutions and reaching out to foreign institutions for funding and aid to Gaza and to finance military activities. The cell included a number of men who were also arrested the week before.
Some of the cell's members were taken before the Yehuda military court and charged with being active members of an illegal organization.
Hamas administers the Gaza Strip. Some observers rule out the idea that Hamas would involve women in its political and military activities in the West Bank, which is controlled by its rival, Fatah.
Al-Monitor met with Rajaa al-Halabi, who oversees Hamas women’s work in Gaza. That work includes educating young girls at the intellectual, political, humanitarian, social, media and charitable levels. She stressed that the movement believes in complementary roles for men and women.
Halabi denied the existence of any women's movement affiliated with Hamas in Hebron, due to the tension caused by the presence of Israeli soldiers and settlers there, and movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli army and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas' work in the West Bank is outside Hebron and is limited to social and advocacy activities, she said, and some women members there might sometimes work on electronic campaigns.
She denied the existence of a female leadership in the West Bank, and said it wouldn't make much sense to have a women’s cell in the West Bank that's run from the Gaza Strip.
Halabi said women are part of almost all of the movement’s departments in the Gaza Strip, and have their own structure. Their plans are approved by the movement’s senior leadership, she noted. Halabi explained that women are not part of a military structure within the movement, for technical reasons that she didn't elaborate on. She did say there are efforts to set up military summer camps for young women.
Halabi also denied claims that women aren't allowed in Hamas' political bureau in the Gaza Strip. Their lack of a presence so far has to do with security and technical reasons, but again, she didn't elaborate. Women are submitting applications to join the political bureau, and their requests are currently under consideration. If the Hamas leadership finds qualified candidates, it won't hesitate to take them in, she added.
The situation is different in the West Bank, however.
“[Hamas] is a semi-secret organization in the West Bank. Hamas wouldn't risk any of its women members there,” Halabi said.
Political analyst Assaad al-Aweiwi told Al-Monitor many Palestinians believe Hamas is no longer active in the West Bank, since many of its members have been captured by Israel or prosecuted by the PA. Israel, by claiming the existence of such a cell, is trying to convince people that Hamas is still working in full swing in the West Bank governorates, notably in Hebron, and is now turning to its female members to carry out advocacy and political activities there.
Aweiwi said it's normal for political movements such as Hamas to have a presence in Palestinian activities and among activists, especially when such activities are limited to social, advocacy, media and union events.
But, he said, “It's not possible for Hamas to rely on women in military action. And it's only normal for the Israeli narrative not to be neutral, [and rather to be] filled with false claims for political purposes and strategies.”
Nidal Abu Ayash, another political analyst, told Al-Monitor Israel is putting women on notice that they're now under the same scrutiny as male Palestinians.
He said Israel has been accelerating the Judaization process of the West Bank through arrests, seizure of houses, harassment and checkpoints. This is especially true in Hebron, which is one of the largest and most populated Palestinian cities, he noted.
Abu Ayash denied any connection between a women's cell in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. “Perhaps these women in the West Bank have indeed raised funds but have spent them in charitable work and on needy families in Hebron. I don't believe they were sent from Gaza.”
Political analyst Ibrahim Habib told Al-Monitor Israel is attempting to target women activists of Hamas in the West Bank, trying to eradicate the movement by using the same old charges of terrorism or disrupting the public system. He said he expects Israel to increase its attacks and arrests of both men and women supporters of Hamas.
“The PA is [also] trying to eliminate Hamas leaders and male activists in the West Bank, but it's unlikely it would assault women, [owing to] societal and cultural considerations — which is not the case with Israel,” Habib said.
He said it's far-fetched to think Hamas women in the West Bank and Gaza coordinate with each other. "Everyone knows that funds enter the Gaza Strip under tight and close control, so the story of female cells sending money from the West Bank doesn't add up,” he added.
“Hamas holds the women among its ranks in high esteem. The movement’s women in the West Bank are merely active in advocacy and mobilization work and are not engaged in any political or military actions,” Habib concluded.