Haitham Tamimi, Reuters, March 27, 2008
HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron protested on Thursday against Israeli raids and closures of orphanages and charities linked to Islamist group Hamas.
Israel says the charities, which helped Hamas build support among Palestinians and win a 2006 parliamentary election, provide help to militants. The charities say they are simply aiding ordinary Palestinians.
According to organizers, some 4,000 protesters including children protested in Hebron. They chanted anti-Israeli slogans, waved green banners -- the color of the Hamas flag -- and held placards reading "They even took our bread".
Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, Israel has stepped up raids targeting the group's charities and schools in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's rival Fatah faction holds sway.
Abbas's government has also sought to crack down on Hamas members and their charities in the West Bank.
Israeli troops last month raided the Hamas-linked Islamic Charity Organization in Hebron, confiscating computers and vehicles from its main office and closing several smaller offshoot institutions, including an Islamic school.
"We are not a terrorist organization. We are helping orphans and families who have no source of income," said Abu Hamdan, a spokesman for the Islamic Charity Organization.
The army said in a statement it raided the organization because it delivered money to militants, trained young people "according to the Jihad spirit" and supported the families of suicide bombers.
The United States, which is trying to sideline Hamas and bolster Abbas as part of a push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, has blacklisted some Palestinian charities linked to Hamas.
Abu Hamdan said shutting Hebron's Islamic charities and schools, many of which provide lodging to children, would put thousands of Palestinian orphans on the streets.
"I deserve to be treated like any other child around the world," said 14-year-old orphan Rani Hasan during the protest. "My father is dead. Who will take care of me?"
(Writing by Rebecca Harrison; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)