Mining, chickens, equity fund. Hamas’ money machine ignored by Israel

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Even after the US Treasury Department finally levied sanctions against the network in 2022, records show, Hamas-linked figures were able to obtain millions of dollars by selling shares in a blacklisted company. Treasury now fears such money will allow Hamas to finance its continuing war with Israel and to rebuild when it is over.

Israeli leaders believed Hamas was more interested in governing than fighting. By the time the agents discovered the ledgers in 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was encouraging the government of Qatar to deliver millions of dollars to the Gaza Strip. He gambled that the money would buy stability and peace.

Levy recalled briefing Netanyahu personally in 2015 about early work tracking the Hamas portfolio.

“I can tell you for sure that I talked to him about this,” Levy said. “But he didn’t care that much about it.”

Yossi Cohen, the former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.Credit: AP

Netanyahu’s Mossad chief shut down Levy’s team, Task Force Harpoon, that focused on disrupting the money flowing to groups including Hamas.

Former Harpoon agents grew so frustrated with the inaction that they uploaded some documents to Facebook, hoping companies and investors would find them and stop doing business with Hamas-linked companies.

In the years that followed the 2018 discovery, Hamas’ money network burrowed deeper into the mainstream financial system, records show.

2015: Task Force Harpoon

Israeli security and intelligence officials, working from a secure compound outside Tel Aviv, Israel, spent years tracking Hamas’ money. By 2015, they were on to what they called Hamas’ “secret investment portfolio”.

Terrorist organisations often use front companies to launder money. But here, Israeli agents saw something different, more ambitious: a multinational network of real businesses churning out real profits.

On paper, they looked like unrelated companies. But over and over, the Israelis said they identified the same Hamas-linked figures as shareholders, executives and board members.

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There were people like Hisham Qafisheh, a white-goateed Jordanian who studied in Saudi Arabia and had a knack for finding political support. One of his companies won a $US500 million ($744 million) highway contract in Sudan.

Then there was Amer al-Shawa, a Turkish man of Palestinian descent who studied electrical engineering in Ohio and more recently spent five months under interrogation in an Emirati jail on suspicion of funding Hamas.

At the top was Ahmed Odeh, a Jordanian businessperson with years of experience in Saudi Arabia. The Israelis learned Hamas’ governing Shura Council had given Odeh seed money to build and manage a portfolio of companies.

Hamas, the de facto governing body of Gaza, relied principally on Iran to fund its military wing. But Hamas wanted its own funding stream, too.

The Israeli security services operated a terrorism-finance investigative team at the time called Task Force Harpoon. It put people from across counterterrorism – spies, soldiers, police officers, accountants, lawyers – under the same umbrella and gave them a direct report to the prime minister.

Harpoon churned out intelligence to financial regulators, law enforcement agencies, politicians and allies in Washington, helping Israel win financial sanctions targeting Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah.

Back then, the consensus among Israeli officials was that Iran was the bigger threat. It had nuclear ambitions and armed both Hamas and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. So the bulk of the task force’s attention remained focused there.

2016: Shut Down

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A 2014 war between Israel and Hamas had left Hamas’ fortifications in ruins and its arsenal depleted.

Hamas, though, was able to rebuild.

By 2016, Netanyahu’s government had begun pursuing a strategy to contain Hamas by allowing the Qataris to send money to Gaza. Netanyahu said that money was humanitarian aid. Privately, he told others that stabilising Hamas would lessen pressure on him to negotiate towards a Palestinian state.

That same year, the new Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, dismantled Harpoon as part of an agency reorganisation.

A new group of intelligence agents and specialists from a few other agencies kept chasing the money, but without the organisational structure and direct access to senior policymakers.

This new group soon made another alarming discovery.

Until that point, it had estimated Hamas was taking about $US10 million to $US15 million annually from their companies’ profits.

Then they learnt Hamas had sold off some of the secret portfolio’s assets, raising more than $US75 million. That money was sent to Gaza, where it was used to rebuild Hamas’ military infrastructure.

Israeli authorities have now concluded this influx of money not only helped Hamas prepare for the October 7 attacks but also gave leaders confidence they would have the money to rebuild afterwards.

2018: The Big Break

Exactly how Israeli intelligence obtained the ledgers remains unclear. But in 2018, the team got the proof it had been seeking.

The documents were created by Mahmoud Ghazal, a man whom the Israelis had identified as the Hamas portfolio’s bookkeeper.

The ledgers spanned 2012 to 2018 and contained entries and valuations for companies the agents had been monitoring in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey and elsewhere. The records also contained familiar names, including Qafisheh and Shawa.

The documents were hard evidence of what the Israelis had long suspected: Despite what public records said, Hamas was in control.

This discovery was quickly bolstered by intelligence from Saudi Arabia. In mid-2018, the Saudis arrested Ghazal and two other men who, corporate records show, held positions in 18 companies in the portfolio.

Under interrogation, Ghazal confessed the portfolio existed to transfer money to Hamas. He also said that, just as the Israelis had long suspected, Odeh directed where the money went.

The two other men told their interrogators they were shareholders in name only. Their stakes were actually owned by Qafisheh. Qafisheh, the men said, was a Hamas operative.

The Saudis shared the materials with Washington, knowing Washington would share them with its close ally Israel. The Saudi monarchy has no tolerance for Hamas and hoped Washington would blacklist the companies.

The Israeli team shared the ledgers and its intelligence with American officials in early 2019, hoping to encourage financial sanctions.

But then, nothing.

The Trump administration did not act. And Israel, which was more focused on getting the Americans to issue Iranian sanctions, did not press for more urgent actions.

2019-Now: Turkey

Although the investment portfolio spanned many countries, Turkey was key.

Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has not criminalised Hamas, nor has it clearly restricted Hamas’ activities in Turkey.

By 2019, Odeh was in Turkey, as was Qafisheh.

Shawa, after being released from jail in the UAE in 2015, returned to Turkey.

Erdogan was a major proponent of the nation’s building industry, which was good news for the company at the center of the Hamas portfolio: a real estate developer named Trend GYO.

Trend took advantage of Erdogan’s building boom. It brought in an investor, Hamid al-Ahmar, with ties to the president. And it reorganised itself as a real estate investment trust, which had Turkish tax advantages, and went public.

Trend’s general manager, Shawa, said he had no real power at the company. The board, he said, made all of the decisions. He denied being involved with Hamas, but he said he suspected others at Trend were.

Odeh and Ahmar declined to comment through intermediaries. Trend would not pass messages seeking comment to Qafisheh, and a spokesperson said he and Ahmar were no longer involved with the company. Hamas, through its media office in Lebanon, declined to comment.

Foreign investors piled in. In 2019, while Washington sat on the ledgers, U.S. and European banks held more than 3% of the company’s publicly traded shares on behalf of clients.

While the sanctions proposal languished, Hamas appointed a new investment chief, Musa Dudin. Unlike his predecessors, he was a well-known Hamas military operative.

Dudin, too, has resettled in Turkey. Dudin declined to comment through an intermediary.

Meanwhile, Hamas-linked owners began cashing out. In 2019, Qafisheh sold more than $US500,000 worth of stock. In 2020, AAhmar sold shares worth $US1.6 million.

The company’s owners got money out of the company another way, too. Shawa said the board pushed him to award Trend contracts to a construction company Qafisheh owned with two other Trend shareholders. Trend paid that company more than $US7.5 million from 2018 to 2022.

Trend, in a written statement, said it had paid the construction company “in accordance with commercial practices and legal rules” and no longer has a relationship with the company.

The Israeli agents understood Iranian sanctions would take precedence over Hamas but were frustrated by the delays. At their wits’ end, former Task Force Harpoon members took a desperate step. In June 2021, they uploaded some of the Hamas financial records to Facebook.

The goal was to create a trail of online breadcrumbs for journalists, financial investigators and others to follow. The Facebook post generated a smattering of news coverage.

Finally, in May 2022, the Treasury Department announced financial sanctions against what it called an expansive Hamas funding network. Odeh and Qafisheh were named as financiers. Trend was financially blacklisted, as were several other associated companies.

All had been named in the ledgers the Israeli team had given the Americans three years earlier.

The value of Trend’s stock, which is still traded on the Istanbul exchange, has more than doubled since it was added to the sanctions list. During the same period, two Trend shareholders now under sanction sold $US4.3 million in stock. Asked if that money went to Hamas, the company’s chair said he did not know and it would be inappropriate to ask.



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