KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip — For a basic tooth filling and crown, the price difference is negligible: $17 at a regular clinic, $15 at Al Quds Clinic. The real distinction is in the extras.
"It's safer to come to an Islamic place, where you can find a doctor who's not only a good dentist, but a good Muslim," said Najwa abu Mustafa, 24, who sat one recent afternoon in the sunny waiting room with several other women, shrouded in black veils but for the thin openings around their eyes. "You're putting yourself in God's hands."
The small clinic on the edge of one of the Gaza Strip's biggest refugee camps is one of hundreds of medical centers, food banks, summer camps and schools across the West Bank and Gaza operated by Islamic charities, many of them linked to the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its Arabic acronym Hamas.
The militant group's recent victory in parliamentary elections is testimony in part to its long track record on the streets. Its services are often perceived as being of higher quality and less tainted by corruption than the cumbersome and often ineffective social network operated by the Palestinian Authority controlled until now by Fatah.
The work Hamas does at home is an often-overlooked key to the domestic popularity of an organization most known elsewhere for killing. The United States has declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and U.S. and Israeli counter-terrorism experts have cited numerous instances in which Al Qaeda and Hamas drew funding from international Islamic charities. Hamas also reportedly has used schools and hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza to store weapons and plan attacks.
Faced with U.S. and European measures aimed at preventing charity funds from being funneled into terrorism, Hamas has erased many of its traceable financial links to the humanitarian programs. But Hamas figures remain on the boards and in management of the programs, which analysts say have become an essential component of the group's public support.
"Hamas has been very good at compartmentalizing their activities -- where they have a soup kitchen, for example, they simply give soup, nothing more," said Mouin Rabbani of the International Crisis Group, which studied Islamic social activism in the occupied territories. "But it all fits into a broader pattern of popular mobilization and becomes another way of seeking support for the organization."
Over the last two decades, several large Islamic charities have come to be closely associated with Hamas, including the Mujamma Islami network, Al Salah Society, the Islamic Center and the Islamic University of Gaza. But the International Crisis Group said there was little "substantial evidence" that Islamic welfare institutions "systematically divert" funds to support terrorist activity.
"Hamas doesn't have much in the way of resources, but they have a big network of charity working in order to reduce the suffering of the Palestinian people," said Sami abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group in Gaza. "People feel the credibility of Hamas, and its ability to make change through the charity organizations that it runs."
In Gaza, Al Salah Society's school for 1,000 orphans and other youngsters in the teeming town of Deir al Balah stands in sharp contrast to the crumbling concrete and dusty streets around it, a fenced-in oasis of palms and neat classrooms.
"Muslims are the best nation created in the world," says a banner hanging outside the school, next to another that says, "Those who learn more earn a higher degree in paradise."
Al Salah's director, Ahmad Kurd, was recently elected mayor of Deir al Balah, and Hamas scooped up two of the region's three parliamentary seats in the January elections.
"In 1994 there was an Israeli operation which destroyed several Palestinian houses [of families of suspected militants] in one of the poorest neighborhoods," Kurd said. "I had to meet with the Israeli commander, and he asked me, 'Why are you supporting and helping those victims who lost their homes?'
"I told him, 'The Red Crescent is helping, the Churches United organization also gives some help to them, the Catholic Relief organization, the United Nations. And Al Salah Society is there as well. Is it forbidden?' And he was not able to respond to that."
When Israeli forces launched a major incursion into the southern Gaza refugee camp of Rafah in 2004, leaving nearly 1,500 residents homeless, Al Salah sent fundraisers with megaphones down the streets, going door to door, standing on street corners and outside the mosques. Women were asked to drop their gold necklaces into the collection boxes. Poor families gave sacks of rice. Al Salah collected $1 million worth of food, valuables and cash in Gaza, one of the poorest places in the Middle East.
Yet Kurd said it would be a mistake to think Hamas won the votes because of its charity work.