The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has thrown the spotlight on the use of cryptocurrencies by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas to fund its militant activity.
Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, is under scrutiny once again after Israeli authorities detected and seized multiple Hamas-linked Binance accounts since the 7 October attacks.
Is Hamas using bitcoin (BTC) and Binance to fund its Israeli campaign? Let’s find out.
Does Hamas Use Crypto?
At the time, Hamas’ military unit, called the Al-Qassam Brigades (AQB), had conducted bitcoin fundraising campaigns on social media. The campaign was supported by dedicated fundraising website and tutorial videos on how to make BTC donations.
“Hamas was the first terrorist organization to use cryptocurrency to raise funds. Since at least early 2019, the Izz-Al Din-Al Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military arm, has attempted to use cryptocurrencies as an alternative fundraising method to support its military operations,” said Ari Redbord, Global Head of Policy at blockchain intelligence company TRM Labs in an email to Techopedia.
However, in April 2023, AQB announced the end of its BTC fundraising campaign in “order to ensure the safety of donors in light of the intensification of prosecution.” The group appealed to its supporters to make donations through “other available methods.”
Yet, as the conflict reignites, there have been reports of crypto fundraising activities by Hamas-linked organisations.
According to TRM Labs, a wallet address linked to Hamas-supporting group GazaNow has received $5000 in crypto donations since 7 October 2023. While a fundraising campaign called ‘Tofu al-Aqsa’ is currently making the rounds on X soliciting crypto donations.
It must be noted that the BTC donation accounted for only a fraction of Hamas’ total funding. According to a 2021 report by the US Department of State, Iran provides up to $100 million annually in combined support to Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas.
“We are seeing fundraising from organizations that support Hamas’ and its attacks on Israel. Despite this activity, it is important to point out that the use of cryptocurrency for fundraising and other terrorist financing activity remains relatively low compared to traditional fiat currency,” said Redbord.
“It is also important to note that Israeli and U.S. authorities have been very successful in countering Hamas’ attempts to raise funds in cryptocurrency. Since 2019, counter terrorism efforts have seized about 200 cryptocurrency addresses linked to terror groups including Hamas, including seized addresses since the attack last Saturday.”
Did Hamas Use Binance to Fund Israeli Campaign?
Binance has constantly been in the crosshairs of government authorities and regulators for allegedly allowing money laundering and illicit financing activities. Hackers, scammers, and drug traffickers are known to use Binance as an off-ramp to convert cryptocurrencies into fiat money.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) was one of the U.S. government entities that filed a civil lawsuit against Binance in 2023. The chief complaint of the CFTC was that Binance “failed to implement basic compliance procedures designed to prevent and detect terrorist financing and money laundering.”
“(Binance’s) own emails and chats reflect that Binance’s compliance efforts have been a sham and Binance deliberately chose – over and over – to place profits over following the law,” said Gretchen Lowe, CFTC’s Enforcement Division Principal Deputy Director and Chief Counsel.
Later, in May 2023, Reuters revealed that the Israeli government seized about 190 Binance accounts, several of which were linked to the Hamas group and Islamist State (ISIS).
In response to the accusations, Binance accused Reuters of “deliberately leaving out critical facts to fit their narrative” and added that it had a “robust compliance program” in place to detect suspicious activity.
“An often overlooked fact (or perhaps in this case, deliberately ignored) is that it’s not possible for a crypto exchange (or anyone) to block or reverse a digital asset deposit once a transaction has been verified on the blockchain. This is a fundamental feature of all digital asset transactions.”
As of October 2023, Binance is actively cooperating with Israeli authorities to detect and deactivate Hamas-linked accounts on its platform. On 10 October 2023, Israeli cyber crime unit Lahav 433 and Binance successfully seized multiple crypto accounts linked to the Hamas that had begun raising funds since the 7 October attacks.
Crypto is Transparent
So when Hamas-linked AQB announced an end to its BTC fundraising in April 2023, the news came as a big win for the crypto industry.
What most people fail to realize is that although cryptocurrency transactions remain anonymous and are only identified by random alphanumeric wallet addresses, all the transactions that occur on the blockchain can be tracked and traced.
Blockchain transactions are transparent. Anyone with a browser and internet connection can view the entire history of any transaction on block explorer websites such as EtherScan (for Ethereum chain transactions). The crypto balances of wallet addresses are also transparent.
Blockchain analytics companies like Elliptic and Chainlysis have created tools that can extensively trace the path taken by cryptocurrencies from wallet to exchanges, eventually helping authorities connect real-world identities to the funds.
In another major victory in the fight against illicit crypto financing, Chainlysis reported in June 2023 that Israel’s National Bureau for Counter Terror Financing (NBCTF) had seized roughly $1.7 million worth of cryptocurrencies from a Lebanon-based militant group called Hezbollah.
“Thanks to the transparency of blockchains, law enforcement can trace funds used for illicit activity and eventually connect them to real world people and entities — and the immutablility of blockchains means that these investigations can take place any time, regardless of how long ago the crime took place, as the transactions’ evidence will be available forever.”
With technological advancements, cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology may eventually be seen as the superior option to the traditional banking system when it comes to fighting financial crime, money laundering, and illicit funding.
The transparent and open nature of blockchains has also allowed public participation in financial investigations, something that is not possible with the closed banking system.
And this could lead to a complete pivot in the narratives around cryptocurrency as the industry matures, with actors like Binance emerging to assist law enforcement authorities instead of resisting.
The growing trend of organizations getting cold feet on conducting illicit crypto fundraising is a good sign. However, we must not get carried away because the road to crypto redemption is long.