Five Palestinian-American men are serving time for providing aid to Palestinian refugees. Their conviction 10 years ago spurred broader efforts to criminalize Palestine advocacy in the United States.
Ten years ago, United States federal prosecutors shut down what was then the biggest Muslim charity in the country, a foundation supporting Palestinians refugees. Authorities seized all of the Holy Land Foundation’s assets and put five of its leaders in prison.
Over the past decade, the case has set into motion a broad and powerful effort to criminalize and sanction Palestine advocacy in the United States. It created a chilling effect that forces many Americans to think twice before supporting Palestinian or Muslim charities to this day.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the FBI raided the offices of Holy Land Foundation. In 2004, federal agents arrested five of the foundation’s leaders on charges of funneling material support for a designated terrorist organization — Hamas. After a second trial — the first resulted in a mistrial — they were sentenced to prison, two of them to 65 years.
“The mainstreaming of the idea that support for Palestinians is something that should be scrutinized originates with cases like Holy Land,” said Diala Shamas, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“It starts with the material support framework, where any kind of support for Palestinians is labeled and smeared as support for terrorism, but you see that in the rhetoric today, it’s everywhere,” Shamas added.
Material support laws are intentionally kept vague and broadly-defined, and they have had a significant chilling effect on several civil rights issues in the United States, according to Shamas.
Furthermore, targeting the Holy Land Foundation had a very intended political effect; it mattered that the government was not only going after what was at the time the largest Muslim charity in America, but also one that was focused on providing relief to Palestinians.
“These people were convicted for providing charity,” Nancy Hollander, the defense attorney who represented Abu Baker, told +972. “They were never charged with, convicted or arrested for any violent act. The government chased every dime that they spent, and knew where it all went, and it went to charity. It’s just that the government’s position was that they were feeding the wrong kids.”