In July 2004, federal agents raided the homes of five Palestinian-American families, arresting the fathers, who had been leaders of a Texas-based charity called the Holy Land Foundation. Until 9/11, the HLF was the largest Muslim charity in the United States, but in December 2001 the federal government shuttered the organization and seized its assets. The first trial of the HLF-5, held in 2007, ended in a hung jury. The second trial was marked by highly questionable procedures including the admission of testimony from anonymized Israeli security agents. It resulted in very lengthy sentences for the men — for “supporting terrorism” by donating to charities in Palestine that the US government itself had long worked with. The men remain in prison.
The following essay is excerpted from Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five by Miko Peled (Just World Books, 2018), which is available for purchase.
Twenty-year-old Zaira Abu-Baker was still in bed in her parents’ home when she heard the banging on the front door. She looked at her phone and noticed several missed calls and a message from her friend Noor Elashi. She opened the message from Noor; it contained one word. Aju.
It means “they came.”
At precisely 7:00 a.m. central time, on July 27, 2004, the homes of Shukri Abu-Baker, Ghassan Elashi, Mu d Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh, and Mohammad Elmezain were raided by local and federal law enforcement. All five men, who would come to be known as the HLF-5, were taken into custody. Four years and two trials later, all five were sent to federal prison, serving sentences ranging from fifteen to sixty-five years.
I learned about the HLF-5 in the fall of 2011.
I had been asked to lecture at the University of Texas, in Dallas. After my lecture ended, I met with some of the student activists on campus, among whom were several daughters of the HLF-5.
HLF stands for The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. It was at one time the largest Muslim charity organization in America. As Ghassan Elashi would later explain to me, “Helping the poor, the orphans, and the widows is one of the pillars of Islamic teachings. HLF was a vehicle: it allowed Muslims in the US and worldwide to practice their religious duty of paying alms, or zaka, to help the needy, especially in Palestine.”
I was born in Jerusalem to Israeli Jewish parents, but my family was no ordinary family.
On December 4, 2001, HLF was shut down by President George W. Bush under Executive Order 13224. Federal agents raided the charity’s offices and seized all documents, assets, and funds of the organization, as well as personal property of the employees.
Although all funds raised by the charity had gone to humanitarian aid and the government had found no illegal financial transactions by HLF, prosecutors relied on Executive Order 12947 issued by President Clinton on January 23, 1995, which prohibits financial transactions with any “Specially Designated” organizations. By the time HLF was shut down, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance movement, known as Hamas, was one of these organizations. The prosecution’s theory was that, by supporting needy Palestinians, HLF had “freed up” Hamas’ own assets to fund terrorist attacks, and that if Palestinians knew that HLF would provide support for their families if assistance became necessary, they would be more likely to become suicide bombers.
I have a personal history with Hamas’ suicide attacks: in 1997, my thirteen-year-old niece, Smadar Elhanan, was killed by one.
I was born in Jerusalem to Israeli Jewish parents, but my family was no ordinary family. My maternal grandfather was among the select group of Zionist leaders who signed the Israeli declaration of independence. My father served as an officer in the war that established Israel in 1948, and later as a general in the Israeli Defense Forces. He was a member of the IDF high command orchestrating Israel’s spectacular victory in 1967 during what would come to be known as the Six-Day War.
I did not need to be taught to love my country; that love was given to me with my mother’s milk, but it also came with a healthy dose of questioning authority and a desire to point out and eradicate injustice whenever and wherever possible.
My family hoped that the end of the war would be the end of fighting. As consecutive Israeli governments were populating the newly occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem with Jewish settlers, my father was meeting with Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat, hoping to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Then on Thursday, September 4, 1997, Hamas orchestrated a suicide attack in Jerusalem that took the life of, among others, my niece. Although my father had passed away almost two years earlier, the headlines in the Israeli newspapers the following morning referred to her as “the granddaughter of General Matti Peled.”
I was living in the United States already, so I took the first plane home. My sister’s apartment in Jerusalem was packed with Israelis and Palestinians who had come to express their sorrow and horror. There were representatives of every news agency from around the world, but what they heard from our family was not the narrative they expected.
We all felt that the Israeli government was ultimately responsible for Smadar’s fate. We blamed Israel’s brutal occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people for her death and that of countless others, mostly Palestinians.
Smadar’s death had an enormous impact on me and on my life. When I returned to the United States, I was determined to become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and thankfully I was introduced to a Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group in San Diego. I attended the monthly meetings and realized that even though I was born and raised in Jerusalem, this was the first time I was meeting and speaking to Palestinians face to face. I later also realized it was the first time I was with Palestinians in the same place and we were equal under the law. In Israel, Palestinians are subject to civil laws that single them out as Arab citizens, as opposed to the Jewish citizens of the state. In the West Bank and Gaza, military law governs the lives Palestinians and Israeli civil law governs the lives of Jews. In other words, even though Israelis and Palestinians live in the same country, and are governed by the same state, they live in different worlds and under different laws.
By the end of 2011, I had completed my memoir, The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, the result of my soul searching and fact finding, which describes my journey as well as that of my family. I went from being a young Israeli patriot, eager to serve in the Israeli army, to a man questioning the very legitimacy of a “Jewish State” that was established in an Arab country where the majority of the population are not Jewish but Palestinian Arabs.
Fast forward to February 2012. I was invited to Dallas again, this time to speak at a fundraiser for the Muslim Legal Fund of America, MLFA, an organization that pays the legal expenses of Muslims in America who are targeted by the Justice Department, including the vast legal expenses for the HLF-5. Ralph Nader was there too; he gave the keynote address that evening. While in Dallas, I asked if I could meet the family members of the HLF-5 and if I could receive more information about the case. At the time that I arrived in Dallas, a request for an appeal on behalf of the HLF-5 had just been denied and their lawyers were contemplating their next move, a possible appeal to the US Supreme Court. On the evening of the MLFA event, I met with several of the HLF-5 family members, the wives and some of the older children, at the lobby of the hotel.
Israelis and Palestinians live in different worlds and under different laws.
They are all devout Muslims; the women and girls all wear traditional head covers and simple modest clothes. The generation of the parents, now mostly in their mid- to late fifties, had come to America some thirty years earlier to create a better life for themselves and a future for their children. They established a vibrant and proud community with a kindergarten, a school, and a community center, and the Holy Land Foundation was at the center of their lives. That was how they were giving back.
As I traveled around the country and met young Muslim Americans, they all told me the same things: “After school we would go as kids to the HLF offices to help”; “We would lick envelopes and stick postage stamps on them.” This was a community activity. It was how they, as kids, all learned the importance of “giving back”; that was where their parents knew that their charity money, or zakat, was going to serve the needy.
What I saw before me were quiet, law-abiding, middle-class Americans. And it was clear that they saw their legal options running out.
I listened to their stories, and the more I heard, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to meet more people who were involved with the HLF and to learn as much as I could about the case. But more than anything I was moved by the daily trials of these families, and the community, who were hurled into a storm of anti-terrorism efforts mixed in with large doses of anti-Islam, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian sentiment. I felt that there was something seriously wrong here. I felt that these families and the Muslim and Arab community were implicated in something with which they had nothing to do: terrorism.
I asked the family members how I could get in touch with their husbands and fathers and if it was possible to visit them in prison. They mentioned to me that they were held in special prisons called CMUs, or Communication Management Units. Several weeks later I began a process that enabled me to get in touch with one of them via email, and reached Shukri Abu-Baker, the former CEO of the HLF and one of two defendants who received a sixty-five-year jail sentence. After several more weeks, I received my first email from Shukri, and we began a correspondence that has now lasted for several years.
Over time I began to correspond with the others: Ghassan Elashi, also serving a sixty-five year sentence; Mufid Abdulqader, serving twenty years; Abdulrahman Odeh, fifteen years; and Mohammad Elmezain, also called Abu Ibrahim, serving fifteen years. I dove into their stories, their lives, and the saga of their families and their communities.
The story of these men — who have been wrongfully locked up in American prisons — is not just their story, as all too many African Americans, Native Americans and Arab and Muslim Americans know all too well.
In my book, Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five, I try to tell the extraordinary story of the HLF-5. The book begins with the arrests of the men, but I thought it important as well to say something about who these men are and why they created the Holy Land Foundation. As I traveled and met these men — now serving long sentences in federal prisons around the country — I came to admire them as much as any individuals I’ve ever met. And I saw how important it is that others come to see them and to understand the background and the context of this story. Only then could anyone understand the travesty and indeed the tragedy that took place here.
The story of the men’s two trials is a long one. But after reading through more than twenty thousand pages of court documents I am convinced that the details of the trials are important in understanding how the injustice was carried out. Because the story of these men — who have been wrongfully locked up in American prisons — is not just their story, as all too many African Americans, Native Americans and Arab and Muslim Americans know all too well.
Also important to this story is the deep regard these men and their families have for the Muslim faith — something I came to understand, respect and admire. I hope that in the book I can convey something of that faith because it was with their imprisonment that their faith was deeply challenged and profoundly deepened. In this way, the story is also a story of the triumph of the spirit. The book also includes some important background: the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, the creation and rise of Hamas out of the Brotherhood, the tension with the PLO and then the Palestinian Authority.
For me this was the beginning of yet another journey. Though it involved Palestinians, it took place in the United States. This journey went far beyond the story of these five men and their families. It was a journey of discovery into the very real impact that the US-Israel relations and the conflict in Palestine have on some of America’s finest communities: The Arab-American community, the Muslim-American community, and, more than anything, the Palestinian-American community. Along the way, I was able to see Islamophobia in all of its ugliness. I found myself thinking more deeply about and re-evaluating Hamas, discussing the role of NGOs and non-profits that, like the HLF, operate in the West Bank and Gaza (including Christian organizations such as World Vision, which Israel also seems to have targeted); looking at the role that the pro-Israeli groups like the Anti-Defamation League play; and at how the big corporate media report on cases where terrorism is involved. I had gone into the heart of the American prison system, stood in line with families waiting to see loved ones who are incarcerated, and discovered the deep dark secrets of the system, like the CMUs — “the Communication Management Units” — where Muslim “terrorists” communications are “managed.” The story of Shukri Abu-Baker and the rest of the HLF-5 was, it turned out, just the tip of a very large and disturbing iceberg.
Copyright © Miko Peled 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission from Just World Books.