‘Material support’ law used in Holy Land 5 case is how U.S. government harasses Palestine solidarity activists

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A rally for the Holy Land Five in New York City, October 25, 2012.

The last legal avenue for the former heads of the Holy Land Foundation closed earlier this week when the Supreme Court decided not to hear their appeal, much to the chagrin of Palestine solidarity activists and the families of the Holy Land Five, as they are known.

The five men were convicted for violating the U.S. prohibition on “material support” for designated terrorist groups. And what’s important to note is that the Holy Land Five case was hardly the first time the “material support” law has been used against those advocating for Palestinian rights. Indeed, the prohibition on “material support” for State Department-designated terrorist groups is a favored tool of the government to go after Palestine solidarity activists. The continued use of the law is contributing to a slow process of criminalizing Palestine solidarity activism–not by outlawing the activism, but by using terrorism-related concerns to hinder advocates’ work.

In the Holy Land Five case, the defendants were convicted of sending aid to zakat committees who operated in occupied Palestine. Zakat is the Islamic principle of giving a portion of your money to the poor. The government successfully claimed that the zakat committees were linked to Hamas, a designated U.S. terrorist organization–despite the fact that, as Allison Deger pointed out on this site, “the Holy Land Foundation was donating to the same zakat charities that the U.S. government supported via USAID.” The “material support” the five men were convicted of was the sending of aid to committees that distribute relief to poor Palestinians.

So what exactly does the law say on “material support”? Writing for AlterNet last year, I gave a rundown of the law’s history:

First passed in 1996 as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the material support provision makes it a crime to “knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.” “Material support,” according to the Center for Constitutional Rights , is “defined in the statute to include almost any kind of support for blacklisted groups, including humanitarian aid, training, expert advice, ‘services’ in almost any form, and political advocacy.” People convicted of providing material support to a designated terrorist group face up to 15 years in prison.

The 2001 Patriot Act broadened the definition of material support to include “expert advice or assistance,” and in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the law . Critics of the law say it stifles free speech and criminalizes nonviolent activity.

The New York Times editorial board harshly criticized the Supreme Court’s verdict in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, calling it a decision that “reduced the First Amendment rights of American citizens.”

The Holy Land Five convictions represent a particularly egregious case of why the “material support” law is so harmful. And while the law says people may face up to 15 years, Ghassan Elashi, currently locked up in what some have dubbed “Guantanamo North” for its restrictive prison conditions, is looking at spending 65 years in prison. Elashi was the co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation.

Since the government’s successful conviction of the Holy Land Five, they have used the “material support” law to threaten and subpoena even more Palestine solidarity activists. The most recent episode targeted American activists involved in the Freedom Flotilla effort last year, as I reported for AlterNet:

The prohibition on material support remains a potent weapon the Obama administration wields to pressure American activists who plan to set sail to break Israel’s blockade.

American officials continue to repeatedly threaten to prosecute the U.S. activists involved with the flotilla.

And, perhaps most importantly, it represents the latest action in the Obama administration’s crackdown on Palestine solidarity activists across the U.S—a crackdown that is a continuation of similar efforts made by the Bush administration in cases like the Holy Land 5…

Much to the chagrin of the U.S. Boat to Gaza, it looks like the American flotilla activists will have to deal with the specter of prosecution. A June 24 statement from the State Department bluntly warns that “delivering or attempting or conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas, could violate U.S. civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, echoed the State Department in a June 29 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. According to the Associated Press, Perry’s letter “suggested that Holder prosecute the protesters for providing materials or assistance to a terrorist organization.” And while on a recent trip to Israel, New York Democrats Gary Ackerman and Nita Lowey also said that Americans should be prosecuted if they participate in the flotilla.

The American activists who plan to set sail for the Gaza Strip soon as part of the second Freedom Flotilla have rejected the American officials’ claims. In an interview with Think Progress, which asked whether “contacts with groups listed by the U.S. as terrorists” were made by the U.S. Boat to Gaza, Richard Levy, a lawyer and a passenger on The Audacity of Hope, categorically said no.

And before the flotilla effort, there were the raids on 23 activists in the Midwest, some of whom were involved in Palestine solidarity work. Here’s my reporting from the same AlterNet piece on those cases:

23 U.S. activists, some of them involved in Palestine solidarity work, currently face subpoenas from the FBI , which is looking for evidence of material support of terrorism.

The Obama administration’s crackdown on U.S. activists started September 24, 2010, when FBI agents raided the homes of activists across the country and confiscated computers, documents, cell phones and more. All of the activists have refused to cooperate with the grand jury looking into the case, a number of Congress members have spoken out against the raids, and numerous protests have taken place in support of the peace and justice activists.

One Palestinian-American and Chicago-based activist, Hatem Abudayyeh, whose house was raided in September 2010, had his bank account temporarily frozen in May 2011 in a move widely thought to be connected to the coordinated FBI raids.

The activists targeted say the grand jury represents a test case for Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project , the Supreme Court case that held up the material support law.

FBI documents accidentally left behind during a raid on Minneapolis-based activists seem to confirm Palestine solidarity activists’ suspicion that their work is being targeted for political reasons.

One document lists questions the FBI planned to pose to the activists. “Have you ever assisted…someone else…in raising funds for a trip to Israel, West Bank or Gaza?” reads one question. Another reads, “What do you think of terrorist groups?”

Palestine solidarity activists say they have not broken any laws, and are instead being targeted for organizing against the Israeli occupation at a time when the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is growing in the U.S.

“The Palestine solidarity movement, more than any other international solidarity movement in this country, is really shaking things up and changing the narrative and the dynamic,” said Maureen Murphy, a Palestine solidarity activist who was subpoenaed and who is the managing editor of the Electronic Intifada . “Because we are really changing things, that’s why those in power who have an interest in preserving business as usual are going to resort to these legal tools of trying to stop people’s political work.”

The targeted activists say they will continue to resist the Obama administration’s efforts to criminalize Palestine solidarity work.

“It’s important that more people than ever stand up and make their voices heard, because the more of us there are standing up, the harder it is for them to go after just a select few,” said Murphy.

Add to this state of affairs the ongoing law enforcement spying on Palestine solidarity activists in Boston and New York, and this is what you get: a process of criminalizing Palestine solidarity activism. Taken together, these measures could having a chilling effect on people wanting to get involved in this type of activism.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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3 Responses

  1. Stephen Shenfield
    November 2, 2012, 6:50 pm

    By what process and criteria are groups designated as terrorist? In the US the designator is the Secretary of State. Some groups formerly designated as terrorist have had this designation removed. Because they have foresworn terrorism or because they are now regarded as supportive of US interests? In the case of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, which operates against the Iranian regime from Iraq in cooperation with the US, it certainly looks like the latter.

    I wonder also how it is determined whether the entity to which material support is directly rendered (in this case the zakat committee) is to be considered part of the group designated as terrorist. Presumably the anonymous Israeli witness demonstrated certain ties between the committee and Hamas. For instance, perhaps a member of the committee has an uncle who used to be a member of Hamas. But if such connections fall short of effective control of the committee by Hamas, surely the committee cannot be considered part of Hamas. Is there any criterion clearly defined in law?

  2. Boston
    November 3, 2012, 7:59 am

    These laws do not get on the books by accident.

    AIPAC drafts all this stuff and then tells the Congress to pass it. Which they dutifully do to protect and advance their careers

  3. Eva Smagacz
    November 3, 2012, 8:50 am

    Beauty of making political advocacy a part of criminalised “material support”, is that it preserves the designated enemies in statu quo ad finitum until a quiet word in the ear of prosecutors is spread and the law is no longer enforced.

    Nelson Mandela was taken off the USA terrorist list on 1st of July 2008.

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