On Sept. 20, 2008 a Texas jury began deliberations on criminal charges of supporting terrorism brought against the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) and five of its leaders, nearly six years after the charity was shut down and its assets seized by the U.S. Department of Treasury. The two-month long trial was the first opportunity the charity had to hear the evidence against it and present evidence in its own defense. The government did not claim HLF provided direct support of Hamas or a terrorist group. Instead, it argued that charitable aid that provides a public relations benefit to Hamas is a crime, even though the local charities involved are not on any government lists of terrorist organizations. A conviction on these facts will leave many international aid organizations in the impossible position of guessing about the political beliefs of their grantees and the potential political impact of their programs.

The defense argued that HLF and its leaders did not provide support to Hamas and are being prosecuted for their political beliefs and associations on the basis of faulty evidence. HLF and five of its leaders were indicted in 2004 on charges of providing material support for terrorism, money laundering and conspiracy. At the trial, the prosecution said HLF sent $12.4 million in aid to local charities, known as zakat committees, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The government argued that HLF officials knew the zakat committees were controlled by Hamas and directed aid to families of suicide bombers and prisoners. Most of the government evidence consisted of documents, videos and surveillance materials seized from HLF offices and supporters’ homes. Some show the defendants making speeches supporting Palestinian rights or participating in events where Hamas officials were present. One video involved a defendant acting in a skit and pretending to kill an Israeli. A defense attorney pointed out that many of these events occurred before 1995, when Hamas was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and constitute protected First Amendment political speech.

Prosecution witnesses included:

  • FBI Special Agent Robert Miranda, who said HLF used known Hamas activists to speak at fundraising events. On cross-examination, he admitted that these speakers were not listed as terrorists, and it was not illegal to have them as speakers. Miranda also testified that family connections establish a link between some HLF leaders and Hamas. Defendant Ghassan Elashi’s cousin is married to a high-ranking Hamas leader who is on the government lists.
  • FBI Special Agent Lara Burns testified about an HLF letter referring to the zakat committees as “ours” and said that HLF contacts with the committees were Hamas leaders. On cross-examination, Burns admitted that most of these individuals are not on any government watch list.
  • Two Israeli agents were allowed to testify anonymously in a closed courtroom. One, called “Avi,” is an agent in Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic security agency. He testified that Hamas funding comes primarily from international groups like HLF and that the zakat committees are staffed by known Hamas members. He said the Israeli military found materials praising suicide bombers in searches of zakat committee offices.

The defense presented evidence to discredit prosecution witnesses and establish that HLF’s funds were spent for charitable purposes. Defense attorney Nancy Holland asked why the zakat committees were not listed by the government if they really are linked to terrorism. They also showed a video of staff from HLF’s Gaza office delivering food to the family of an ambulance driver killed while attempting to assist a child wounded in a shoot-out between Israelis and Palestinians. The HLF paperwork referred to him as a “martyr.”

The five defense witnesses were:

  • Edward Abington, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and a second-ranking intelligence official in the State Department. He testified that while posted in the Middle East, he received daily intelligence reports from the CIA and never was told zakat committees had links to Hamas. He said Israeli intelligence is unreliable. He also described visits to zakat committee offices and described conditions in refugee camps.
  • Attorney and former member of Congress John Bryant, who represented HLF between 1997 and 2000. He testified about his attempts to get guidance from the FBI and State Department on what groups were legal for HLF to fund; he got no response to his inquiries. He was never told HLF could not work with zakat committees.
  • George Washington University Professor Nathan Brown, who said the testimony of “Avi” relied too heavily on press accounts and other documents without any context. He supported Abington’s assertion that posters praising suicide bombers were not evidence of terrorist ties, since, on a trip to the Palestinian territories, “every blank wall was plastered with posters of martyrs,” noting that Hamas is a political party with broad public support.
  • Former HLF administrative assistant Natalia Suleiman, who testified about food aid and clean water programs the organization operated in Turkey, Albania, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She described the expense documentation process.
  • Former HLF accountant Mohammad Wafa Yaish testified that HLF operated its programs without regard to political affiliation and that employees were not allowed to visit political websites while at work.

In the closing arguments, the issues boiled down to whether the defendants’ political beliefs and activities transform charitable aid into material support for terrorism and whether the public can rely on government watch lists to know who it is legal to do business with.