(Photo: US Boat to Gaza)
Palestine solidarity activists and human rights lawyers are decrying a Congressional bill that would investigate whether organizations involved in last summer's thwarted flotilla to Gaza should be designated as "terrorist" groups. Critics of the House of Representatives bill see it as the latest in a decades-long effort to intimidate Palestine solidarity activists in the United States.
Introduced to the House on October 6, the bill seeks to:
direct the Secretary of State to submit a report on whether any support organization that participated in the planning or execution of the recent Gaza flotilla attempt should be designated as a foreign terrorist organization
The legislation also demands that the State Department, in the same document, report on
Any actions taken by the Department of State to express support and gratitude for the principled stance taken by the Government of Greece to prevent the recent Gaza flotilla attempt to violate Israel’s lawful blockade of Gaza.
"It’s a tool of intimidation," said Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who is involved with efforts to hold Israel accountable for flotilla-related human rights abuses. "It's just one of the many ways in which there is an effort to suppress advocacy and dissent by international solidarity activists trying to advocate for Palestinian human rights."
The bill is the first piece of legislation to target activists involved in the flotillas to Gaza aiming to break the blockade. But it is hardly the first time the U.S. government at large has threatened to bring legal action against activists involved with sending boats to Gaza. As the second Freedom Flotilla tried (and failed) to depart from Greece and head to Gaza by sea, the Obama administration repeatedly threatened to prosecute American activists involved by using the prohibition on "material support" to terrorists law. This was despite the fact that the cargo on the U.S. boat going to Gaza--3,000 letters addressed to the people of Gaza--was carefully chosen to avoid running afoul of the material support law.
Leading the charge to target groups like the US Boat to Gaza, which organized the American flagged Audacity of Hope, is Representative Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In a statement posted to his website, Bilirakis explained:
Israel has been the victim of over 10,000 rockets launched by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza. The United Nations agrees that the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza is legal and in accordance with international law. Any illegal attempts to provide aid and comfort to these bad actors must be investigated.
Bilirakis was one of 81 elected officials to visit Israel on an ethically-questionable trip paid for by an AIPAC-connected group last summer. In total, there are 15 co-sponsors to the bill, which is currently in the House committees on foreign affairs and the judiciary. At least 3 of the 15--Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Michael Grimm and Peter Roskam--also went on the AIPAC-connected trip. Phone calls to and messages left at the Bilirakis office, as well as calls made to co-sponsor Rep. Eliot Engel's office, were not returned.
The Congressional members certainly didn't learn facts on the trip to Israel. Their bill is laden with errors, as the Electronic Intifada's Ali Abunimah, who first reported on the bill, points out. The bill claims, among other falsehoods, that the Turkish organization IHH and the international Free Gaza Movement have been designated "terrorist" organizations by the CIA and the Department of Treasury. Abunimah writes:
The bill provides no evidence to back up these sensational and propagandistic claims. IHH is in fact not designated as a “terrorist” organization by any US government agencies. The claims in the bill are not based on US government or intelligence reports, but appear to come directly from unsubstantiated claims published by an Israeli propaganda and advocacy outfit calling itself the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. This group is closely connected with Israel’s military and intelligence establishments, the main sources for sometimes laughable anti-flotilla incitement and propaganda.
MJ Rosenberg, a blogger and former AIPAC staff member who is now highly critical of the group, explained in an e-mail to Mondoweiss that this bill was most likely written by the powerful Israel lobby group. Rosenberg said:
I worked on Capitol Hill from 1975 through 1982 and again from 1986-1995. Plus, I worked at AIPAC from 1982-1986. In my experience every piece of legislation originating from Members of Congress that relate to Israel and/or Palestine are drafted by AIPAC and then handed out to favored members to call their own...In particular, any bill originating from a member of the House Foreign Affars Committee (which is packed with AIPAC cutouts) originates with and is drafted by AIPAC.
CCR lawyer LaHood said that Congress was hypocritical to introduce this bill when they have ignored Israel's killing of U.S. citizen Furkan Dogan, who was shot at point-blank range on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship during the 2010 Israeli Navy raid on the flotilla.
"Their focus is on whether human rights defenders should be labeled terrorists, rather than trying to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations," said LaHood.
In an phone interview, Felice Gelman, an organizer with the US Boat to Gaza, also denounced the bill.
"This is just an effort to silence people who are trying to act in good conscience for justice," said Gelman. "It’s all part and parcel of the willingness of people in Congress to support attacks on civilians."