Washington - The Bush administration’s most recent effort to prosecute alleged funders of terrorism is raising charges of Islamophobia and causing ethnic tensions in Texas, where the case is being tried.
The case against the Holy Land Foundation is currently being heard at the United States district court in Dallas. Federal prosecutors allege that the foundation served as an American fund-raising front for Hamas.
The case is a crucial test for the Bush administration, which failed in its first two efforts to prosecute alleged American terrorist fundraisers. A handful of Jewish organizations have actively called for the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation, and this has led to charges of Islamophobia from Texas Muslim groups.
Thus far, the courthouse has drawn a steady stream of protesters who have said that prosecutors and Jewish organizations are singling out Muslim charitable organizations. Among those picketing outside the courthouse is Khalil Meek, president of the Muslim Legal Fund of America and a member of Hungry for Justice — a coalition of mostly Muslim groups supporting the defendants.
“To support a prosecution which is only political, without any evidence, is not a good idea,” Meek said in a telephone interview from Dallas.
Within the Jewish community, the claims of anti-Muslim bias are described as baseless. But while no Jewish organization made an official statement on the case, Jewish activists have been warning of Holy Land Foundation ties to Hamas for years.
The regional office of the Anti-Defamation League has been monitoring the group since 1995 and tried to alert other groups and the media about the causes funded by the charity. This action led in the past to demonstrations by Muslim activists outside the ADL’s Dallas offices.
“We tried to supply information about what the Holy Land Foundation really is,” said Mark Briskman, the ADL’s Dallas-based regional director.
“I don’t think this [trial] has a direct affect on the relationship between the local Jewish and Muslim communities, but it all depends on the outcome,” Briskman said.
Some of the scrutiny has been trained on the witnesses called by federal prosecutors. The first witness called to the stand was Matthew Levitt, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former FBI analyst and Department of Treasury official.
Levitt was called to the stand in an effort to prove that a direct connection exists between Hamas and the charity. In court, Levitt said that the concept of “economic jihad” is the underlying principle guiding the Holy Land Foundation and other similar charities. “If Muslims can’t go and fight, they should donate to the cause and fund someone else who will do it.”
During the cross-examination, defense attorneys tried to shake Levitt’s credibility both as an expert on charity groups related to Hamas and as an impartial scholar. The defense pointed out that Levitt was unaware that at least one of the charities he had mentioned was supportive of Fatah and not Hamas.
Later, the defense argued that Levitt was biased in favor of Israel, noting that he has spoken several times at events sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and by Jewish federations, and that founders of Levitt’s think tank are major donors to Aipac.
Levitt declined to comment to the Forward on issues related to the trial due to a gag order issued by the judge to all those involved in the case.
The 42-count indictment of the Holy Land Foundation accuses seven of its senior activists of supporting a foreign terror group, money laundering and tax evasion. Two of the defendants fled the country.
The prosecution has argued that the foundation directed its humanitarian assistance to families of suicide bombers from Hamas and relatives of Hamas activists who were killed or jailed by the Israelis. The evidence is based on extensive FBI surveillance material as well as on documents seized by the Israeli military in raids in the West Bank and Gaza during the period of the second Intifada.
“This is Hamas on trial,” said Steve Emerson, head of the Investigative Project, which collects information on militant Islamic groups. “The evidence that Hamas and the Holy Land Foundation are interchangeable is overwhelming.”
Emerson, who believes that the financial assistance provided by the Holy Land Foundation supported suicide attacks against Israel, dismissed claims of unjust persecution of Muslim organizations in America and said that they are meant “to de-legitimize legitimate criticism against these groups.”
The Dallas trial is the third effort by government prosecutors to tie Muslim activists in the United States to overseas terror groups. In a case in Chicago two men charged with recruiting and providing money to Hamas were acquitted from all terrorism-related charges and found guilty on lesser charges of obstructing justice.
Federal prosecutors were also embarrassed in the Florida case of Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida was accused of running the American operations for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including fundraising and coordination.
At the end of a lengthy trial, in which dozens of witnesses were flown in from Israel and a bus bombing was recreated and filmed, the jury could not reach a verdict on most of the major charges and Al-Arian was found guilty only on minor accounts.
Israel provided assistance to the prosecution in both cases, as it is now doing in the Dallas trial.
The difficulties that surfaced during these two cases have increased the pressure on the Justice Department in the Dallas trial and also sharpened skepticism among Muslim activists regarding the government’s motivation in looking at Islamic charities.
Six charity groups have been shut down by the government after being accused of providing financial aid to groups and individuals included on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
“If they [the government] are successful with this trial, this will have a negative affect on the Muslim community in America,” said Meek, referencing the fact that the indictment also names activists from prominent American Muslim groups as un-indicted co-conspirators.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.