An US federal agent at the Holy Land Foundation in Bridgeview, Illinois, as the contents of the office are seized on 4 December 2001. (AFP PHOTO/Scott Olson)
“I had no intention in my mind and my heart but to help the Palestinian indigenous people who are and have been facing unusual economic distress … nothing in my life was as satisfactory and as self-fulfilling as knowing that I could sign a check. It is the only evidence you have against me, signing the check.”
At a special session on Palestinian political prisoners at the US Social Forum in Detroit last month, Noor Elashi recited that statement given by her father, Ghassan, when he was sentenced by a federal court in May 2009. Ghassan Elashi is the co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), which was the largest Muslim charity in the US before it was shut down by the Bush Administration in 2001.
Sending aid not just to Palestinians living under the thumb of Israel’s military occupation, but to people in Bosnia, Albania, Chechnya and Turkey, the HLF was also involved in local and national humanitarian relief. The organization set up food banks on the East Coast, helped victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and provided assistance to people after floods and tornadoes devastated parts of Iowa and Texas in the 1990s.
Three months after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US Treasury department froze the HLF’s bank accounts as the Executive branch shut down the organization under the auspices of the PATRIOT Act. Using a new provision called the Material Support Law, the US State Department accused the five HLF founders — now dubbed the Holy Land Five — of providing “assistance” to designated “terrorist groups” (namely Hamas) in Palestine. The Bush Administration immediately closed the organization and launched aggressive charges against the charity workers. There was no hearing, and the prosecution was authorized to use secret evidence.
Several other American faith-based relief organizations were also caught in the post-11 September hysteria of charity closures under the same new laws and executive orders. The legislation has been challenged by civil rights groups in the US Supreme Court as unconstitutional, but was upheld and used to sentence Ghassan Elashi, a father of six who immigrated to the US in 1978, to 65 years in prison.
On 21 June 2010, the Supreme Court ruled to continue to authorize prosecutions of charities under the Material Support provision, disappointing families and supporters of the Holy Land Five and troubling US-based organizations that directly support grassroots humanitarian programs in the Middle East.
Noor Elashi, a 24-year-old master of fine arts candidate at the New School in New York City, told The Electronic Intifada that her father’s legal team is in the middle of appealing the entire HLF case. “The attorneys are working with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights,” she said. “The overall impression is that the upholding of the Material Support Law is not the best thing that could happen regarding this case. It’s not the most positive step. But that said, there are so many other grounds for appeal, such as evidentiary issues and the prosecution’s use of an anonymous witness.”
Prosecutors working for the Bush Administration accused the HLF of supporting Hamas by trying to “win hearts and minds” of the Palestinian population through humanitarian assistance, and that the charities HLF worked with were “front groups” for the political party. But after several years of wiretapping phone lines, seizing documents and following money trails, the prosecution couldn’t support its allegations of an HLF-Hamas connection. Elashi said they then resorted to calling on an anonymous Israeli intelligence officer, who called himself “Avi,” as a key witness who told the jury he was an expert who could “smell Hamas.”
“It was the only time in the history of the United States that a witness inside a courtroom was allowed to remain anonymous, so the defense couldn’t cross-examine him,” Elashi said. “That in and of itself is huge grounds for appeal.”
In fact, Israeli intelligence officers, in an unprecendented move, were allowed to testify in secret using pseudonyms and disguises and without the defense being given a full opportunity to cross-examine them during the 2006 federal trial in Chicago of American citizen Muhammad Salah and stateless Palestinian Abdelhaleem Ashqar. Accused of “racketeering” charges related to fundraising for Hamas, both men were acquitted of all the terrorism-related charges, but each was found guilty on single counts of obstruction of justice; Salah for lying on a form in a civil case and Ashqar for refusing to testify before a grand jury.
Additionally, the US government infamously led a lengthy, repressive, and racist assault against the Palestinian-American professor and political activist Dr. Sami al-Arian. Al-Arian, who remains under house arrest following a six-year prison sentence — which included spending 43 months locked in solitary confinement — was also charged, as the HLF were, under the Material Support Law.
Elashi stressed that the HLF was never convicted of giving charity to designated “terrorist” groups, but in the end they were convicted of conspiring to give charity to zakat or charitable committees in Palestine.
“I feel like at this point, anybody is at risk,” Elashi said. “This is the time to be worried. What essentially can happen is that any American can be prosecuted for giving any type of charity, or any type of aid. Even a former president is at risk of being prosecuted,” she said, referring to how Jimmy Carter has helped train election workers in Lebanon.
“The problem with the law is that it’s way too vague,” Elashi added, “and because it’s way too vague, it really singles out groups from the rest of the population, and typically singles out Muslim charities as well as Arab-American individuals. And it’s all being done in the name of national security, but what it’s really doing is shredding the constitution and causing an economic chokehold on occupied Palestine.”
Elashi told The Electronic Intifada that despite the circumstances, her father is extremely hopeful about the appeals process. “Opening the charity was a form of optimism,” she said. “He knew from the first day that when he started the charity it was going to be a challenge. Soon after, he got attacked from pro-Israeli politicians and lobbyists, who tried to link the charity to Hamas and acts of violence. He continued to do everything possible to make sure that the charity kept running, and did pretty much what every other American aid organization did — USAID, the Red Cross, and the UN all gave money to the very same zakat committees that were listed in the HLF indictment.”
The Elashi family has not been allowed to visit Ghassan in prison, Noor Elashi said, for quite some time. In the fall of 2009, after one of the visits, a prison guard told the inmates and the families to disperse. But Noor’s younger brother Omar — who lives with Down’s Syndrome — ran to hug his father, and at that point the prison guard yelled at Ghassan, saying that he disobeyed orders. The guard filed a complaint that led to an internal investigation, and the prison ruled that there would be a six-month to one-year visitation ban.
Even after Ghassan was moved to another prison, the visitation ban moved with him. “We get two phone calls from him every month, which is significantly less than we would get from any other prison,” Elashi said. “We hope to finally see him in September or October.” Ghassan is currently being held inside a Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Illinois, a block within some prisons that are nicknamed “little Guantanamos” due to the overwhelming population of Muslims and people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent.
Defense Attorney Nancy Hollander, on behalf of the Holy Land Five, told The Electronic Intifada that the legal team is optimistic about the appeal. “We are currently working on our brief to the Fifth Circuit,” Hollander remarked. “The current deadline is 3 August, but that might get extended into September. All of our clients have been moved to other prisons. We are in contact with them regularly. We remain hopeful.”
Meanwhile, private, US-based, pro-Israel groups are currently sending millions of dollars every year to support illegal settlement colonies and right-wing Zionist settlers in the occupied West Bank. The New York Times reported on 5 July that at least 40 US-based organizations are actively donating more than $200 million in tax-deductible “gifts” to build and sustain illegal settlements. According to the Times, some of the donations also pay for “legally questionable” items such as bulletproof vests, guard dogs, weapon accessories and armored security vehicles (“Tax-Exempt Funds Aid Settlements in West Bank“).
Daniel C. Kurtzer, the former US ambassador to Israel, told the Times “a couple of hundred million dollars makes a huge difference” in terms of supporting the settlement industry, and if carefully focused, “helps to create a new reality on the ground.”
As of now, there is no indication that any of these faith-based, pro-settlement groups will face the kind of treatment and lengthy, expensive trials under the guise of the Material Support Law like those the Holy Land Five have faced. Noor Elashi told The Electronic Intifada that there is an obvious double standard being applied and enforced against her father and his colleagues.
However, she said that her father “feels his ordeal like he feels a fly on his shoe … He believes that it’s going to pass, and he’s still very proud of everything he’s accomplished. His work has been the most rewarding part of his life. He’s helped people rebuild homes and has given hungry people food. That’s what nourishes him. So he’s optimistic about the appeal.”
At the US Social Forum in Detroit, Elashi read the last part of her father’s statement upon his sentencing. “We helped Palestinian orphans and needy families, giving them hope and life,” he stated. “We gave them hope and life … And what was the occupation giving them? It was providing them with death and destruction. And then we are turned criminals. That is irony.”
The Palestinians, in general, have been extremely patient so far with their leadership. In good faith, we have tried our best to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to knowing what is best for our people and cause. When late President Yasser Arafat declared a Palestinian state in 1988, the Palestinians, both inside Palestine and in the Diaspora, hesitated for a moment (given the concession of agreeing to accept only 22 percent of the historical homeland) before rallying around the leadership and jumping on board of a two-state solution.
Then came the negotiations and Palestinians again showed their support. After the Oslo Accords were signed, most Palestinians here in the West Bank and Gaza were swept up in the euphoria of the PLO’s homecoming, of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from their cities and the arrival of the first ever Palestinian police force on our soil.
Then we waited. We waited for years as Israel continued to breach these and other accords, as Jewish settlements continued to grow and swallow up more and more of our land and still no independent state could be seen on the horizon. As the general population began to grow weary of the broken promises and the continued entrenchment of an occupation it thought these agreements and negotiations would bring to an end, the wariness and frustration set in. Perhaps talks with Israel were futile, perhaps the leadership (at least the one headed by President Mahmoud Abbas) should try another tack, suddenly became food for thought among many Palestinians.
Today, the proximity talks, which started up mere months ago, have already faltered. Is it not time for the Palestinians to reassess this so-called peace track? Not only have the negotiations produced one flop after another, one can only construe Israel’s recent behavior as the proverbial straw that should break this camel’s back.
Take the most recent “scandal” of Israeli politics that surfaced a few days ago. “Scandal” must be parenthesized in the Israeli context because there has yet to be an Israeli one that hasn’t blown over in a matter of days (or months at most) without any real damage to its image. The “scandal” in question is a video tape of Benjamin Netanyahu nine years ago during a visit to a family in the settlement of Ofra. Clearly, the former Prime Minister at the time, but soon to be finance minister, did not know he was being taped. If he did, even he would have glossed over some of his words. As fate would have it, Benny was taped, uncensored, his true intentions towards the Palestinians unmasked.
“Now, they [Clinton Administration] did not want to give me that letter, [in reference to declaring the Jordan Valley an Israeli military site] so I did not give [them] the Hebron Agreement. I stopped the government meeting, I said: ‘I’m not signing.’ Only when the letter came … did I sign the Hebron Agreement. Why does this matter? Because at that moment I actually stopped the Oslo accord.”
Netanyahu goes on to boast about how the US is basically “in Israel’s pocket” and how he was not afraid to “maneuver” President Clinton, whom he calls “extremely pro-Palestinian”.
“America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction … They won’t get in our way … Eighty per cent of the Americans support us. It’s absurd.” Nine years later, back in the seat of premier, Netanyahu has not changed his tune, only modified it for public consumption.
This videotape, disturbing as it is, is hardly an isolated glimpse into the psyche of Israeli government officials. Over the past month, Israel has given blatant indicators of why a Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital, is far from its agenda. Apparently, the state of Israel is now considering yet a new law to “legally” take over land in Jerusalem that falls into the obscure category of “abandoned property.” This would include those who were forced from their homes in 1948 and later in 1967 and could not return. This is hardly “abandonment” given that they were forcefully kept from returning, but alas, this is Israel where anything goes. The more land Israel takes over in Jerusalem the less there will be for any future capital of Palestine, if such an entity is in the cards at all.
Then there is the new regulation passed in the Knesset on July 18 demanding that all those seeking citizenship to pledge allegiance to the state of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. This is not only a slap in the face of those who marry Palestinian-Israelis inside the Green Line, but is also a demeaning requirement for those who live in Jerusalem and need citizenship or permanent residency in order to remain “legally” in their own city. Again, this is one more hallmark of Israel’s efforts to discourage any Palestinian presence in Jerusalem in particular. And if there are less Palestinians with even less land in the eastern sector of the city, east Jerusalem itself will cease even to exist as a Palestinian populated area, swallowed up by pockets of Jewish Israeli presence.
No Israeli leader to date has ever concealed their reluctance if not outright rejection of a viable independent and contiguous Palestinian state. Some, it might be said, have done a better job than others in diplomatic marketing, but the endgame for Israel has always been the same. And there is no doubt the Palestinians have been working against an impossible current for too long.
That is why no one can ever say the Palestinians didn’t give the path of negotiations their best shot. But instead of frustrating themselves and their people by continuing to participate in this moth-to-the-light bashing, perhaps now is the time for our leaders to shift courses and rethink strategy. Instead of fruitless proximity talks, conditions never met and promises broken, how about a clear, focused and intensive campaign aimed at one thing and one thing only: ending Israel’s occupation, holding it accountable for its crimes and establishing that which is long overdue: a free Palestine.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There has been a strong revival in recent years of support among Palestinians for a one-state solution guaranteeing equal rights to Palestinians and Israeli Jews throughout historic Palestine.
One might expect that any support for a single state among Israeli Jews would come from the far left, and in fact this is where the most prominent Israeli Jewish champions of the idea are found, although in small numbers.
Recently, proposals to grant Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in the West Bank, including the right to vote for the knesset, have emerged from a surprising direction: Right-wing stalwarts such as knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, and former defence minister Moshe Arens, both from the Likud party of Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister.
Even more surprisingly, the idea has been pushed by prominent activists among Israel’s West Bank settler movement, who were the subject of a must-read profile by Noam Sheizaf in Haaretz.
Their visions still fall far short of what any Palestinian advocate of a single state would consider to be just: The Israeli proposals insist on maintaining the state’s character – at least symbolically – as a “Jewish state,” exclude the Gaza Strip, and do not address the rights of Palestinian refugees.
And, settlers on land often violently expropriated from Palestinians would hardly seem like obvious advocates for Palestinian human and political rights.
Although the details vary, and in some cases are anathema to Palestinians, what is more revealing is that this debate is occurring openly and in the least likely circles.
The Likudnik and settler advocates of a one-state solution with citizenship for Palestinians realise that Israel has lost the argument that Jewish sovereignty can be maintained forever at any price. A status quo where millions of Palestinians live without rights, subject to control by escalating Israeli violence is untenable even for them.
At the same time repartition of historic Palestine – what they call Eretz Yisrael – into two states is unacceptable, and has proven unattainable – not least because of the settler movement itself.
Some on the Israeli right now recognise what Israeli geographer Meron Benvenisti has said for years: Historic Palestine is already a “de facto binational state,” unpartionable except at a cost neither Israelis nor Palestinians are willing to pay.
‘Horse and rider’
The relationship between Palestinians and Israelis is not that of equals however, but that “between horse and rider” as one settler vividly put it in Haaretz.
From the settlers’ perspective, repartition would mean an uprooting of at least tens of thousands of the 500,000 settlers now in the West Bank, and it would not even solve the national question.
Would the settlers remaining behind in the West Bank (the vast majority under all current two-state proposals) be under Palestinian sovereignty or would Israel continue to exercise control over a network of settlements criss-crossing the putative Palestinian state?
How could a truly independent Palestinian state exist under such circumstances?
The graver danger is that the West Bank would turn into a dozen Gaza Strips with large Israeli civilian populations wedged between miserable, overcrowded walled Palestinian ghettos.
The patchwork Palestinian state would be free only to administer its own poverty, visited by regular bouts of bloodshed.
Even a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank – something that is not remotely on the peace process agenda – would leave Israel with 1.5 million Palestinian citizens inside its borders. This population already faces escalating discrimination, incitement and loyalty tests.
In an angry, ultra-nationalist Israel shrunken by the upheaval of abandoning West Bank settlements, these non-Jewish citizens could suffer much worse, including outright ethnic cleansing.
With no progress toward a two-state solution despite decades of efforts, the only Zionist alternative on offer has been outright expulsion of the Palestinians – a programme long-championed by Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which has seen its support increase steadily.
Israel is at the point where it has to look in the mirror and even some cold, hard Likudniks like Arens apparently do not like what they see. Yisrael Beitenu’s platform is “nonsensical,” Arens told Haaretz and simply not “doable”.
If Israel feels it is a pariah now, what would happen after another mass expulsion of Palestinians?
Lessons from South Africa
Given these realities, “The worst solution … is apparently the right one: a binational state, full annexation, full citizenship” in the words of settler activist and former Netanyahu aide Uri Elitzur.
This awakening can be likened to what happened among South African whites in the 1980s. By that time it had become clear that the white minority government’s effort to “solve” the problem of black disenfranchisement by creating nominally independent homelands – bantustans – had failed.
Pressure was mounting from internal resistance and the international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. By the mid-1980s, whites overwhelmingly understood that the apartheid status quo was untenable and they began to consider “reform” proposals that fell very far short of the African National Congress’ demands for a universal franchise – one-person, one-vote in a non-racial South Africa.
The reforms began with the 1984 introduction of a tricameral parliament with separate chambers for whites, coloureds and Indians (none for blacks), with whites retaining overall control.
Until almost the end of the apartheid system, polls showed the vast majority of whites rejected a universal franchise, but were prepared to concede some form of power-sharing with the black majority as long as whites retained a veto over key decisions.
The important point, as I have argued previously, is that one could not predict the final outcome of the negotiations that eventually brought about a fully democratic South Africa in 1994, based on what the white public and elites said they were prepared to accept.
Once Israeli Jews concede that Palestinians must have equal rights, they will not be able to unilaterally impose any system that maintains undue privilege.
A joint state should accommodate Israeli Jews’ legitimate collective interests, but it would have to do so equally for everyone else.
Moral currency devalued
The very appearance of the right-wing one-state solution suggests Israel is feeling the pressure and experiencing a relative loss of power. If its proponents thought Israel could “win” in the long-term there would be no need to find ways to accommodate Palestinian rights.
But Israeli Jews see their moral currency and legitimacy drastically devalued worldwide, while demographically Palestinians are on the verge of becoming a majority once again in historic Palestine.
Of course Israeli Jews still retain an enormous power advantage over Palestinians which, while eroding, is likely to last for some time.
Israel’s main advantage is a near monopoly on the means of violence, guaranteed by the US.
But legitimacy and stability cannot be gained by reliance on brute force – this is the lesson that is starting to sink in among some Israelis as the country is increasingly isolated after its attacks on Gaza and the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
Legitimacy can only come from a just and equitable political settlement.
Perhaps the right-wing proponents of a single state recognise that the best time to negotiate a transition which provides safeguards for Israeli Jews’ legitimate collective interests is while they are still relatively strong.
That proposals for a single state are coming from the Israeli right should not be so surprising in light of experiences in comparable situations.
In South Africa, it was not the traditional white liberal critics of apartheid who oversaw the system’s dismantling, but the National Party which had built apartheid in the first place. In Northern Ireland, it was not “moderate” unionists and nationalists like David Trimble and John Hume who finally made power-sharing under the 1998 Belfast Agreement function, but the long-time rejectionists of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, and the nationalist Sinn Fein, whose leaders had close ties to the IRA.
The experiences in South Africa and Northern Ireland show that transforming the relationship between settler and native, master and slave, or “horse and rider,” to one between equal citizens is a very difficult, uncertain and lengthy process.
There are many setbacks and detours along the way and success is not guaranteed. It requires much more than a new constitution; economic redistribution, restitution and restorative justice are essential and meet significant resistance.
But such a transformation is not, as many of the critics of a one-state solution in Palestine/Israel insist, “impossible.” Indeed, hope now resides in the space between what is “very difficult” and what is considered “impossible”.
The proposals from the Israeli right-wing, however inadequate and indeed offensive they seem in many respects, add a little bit to that hope. They suggest that even those whom Palestinians understandably consider their most implacable foes can stare into the abyss and decide there has to be a radically different way forward.
We should watch how this debate develops and engage and encourage it carefully. In the end it is not what the solution is called that matters, but whether it fulfills the fundamental and inalienable rights of all Palestinians.
Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse and co-founder of The Electronic Intifada.
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: A large number of Israeli policemen were deployed all over occupied Jerusalem Monday evening to provide protection for extremist Jewish groups that went on provocative marches inside the city on the anniversary of what they called the destruction of the temple.
The marchers gathered in the courtyard of Al-Amoud Gate, one of the gates of old Jerusalem, and the Buraq square chanting slogans calling for destroying the Aqsa Mosque, building the alleged temple of Solomon in its place and expelling all Palestinians from the holy city.
The Israeli police also closed the gates of the Aqsa Mosque before the Maghrib prayer (prayed by Muslims just before sunset everyday), except for Al-Ghawanimeh Gate, and barred the Jerusalemite citizens under age 50 from entering the Mosque.
The police detained three Palestinians from the Old City of Jerusalem during the marches alleging they attempted to attack the marchers.
Earlier on Sunday, the police summoned two of the Aqsa Mosque’s employees for interrogation and warned them of any acts disrupting the marches.
In a related context, senior Fatah official Hatem Abdelqader, the director of the Jerusalem affairs, accused on Monday Salam Fayyad’s government of seriously neglecting the issue of Jerusalem and not setting enough allocation for its protection.
Abdelqader pointed out that Fayyad’s government did not include Jerusalem in its plan for the establishment of the future Palestinian state.
The Fatah official also said that this lack of concern about Jerusalem encouraged the Israeli occupation state to go farther in its violations against it.
He stressed that Fayyad is fully responsible for all consequences arising from the serious situation in Jerusalem.