The Holy Land 5: 65 Year Sentence for Muslim Charity Work
A decade before my father received a 65-year prison sentence, he handed me an unusual book, one that ultimately shifted the way I perceive the world. It was titled Magic Eye, and it contained pages of what seemed like simple multicolored patterns. But each page had a hidden gift, a sensational truth. By diverging your eyes, my father told me, you’ll see an unexpected image. It seemed to challenge everything I’d ever known. I stared at the flat, distorted artwork until it transformed into a faded silhouette and then a three-dimensional shape like a group of dolphins or a rose-filled heart. Years later, as I flip through the pages of my family’s narrative, I see images that are far less whimsical, and indeed, painful.
Last week, U.S. attorney Jim Jacks filed a motion asking the federal judge of the Holy Land Foundation case to transfer my father—Ghassan Elashi, the charity’s co-founder—and his colleagues to a prison that closely monitors its inmates. If transferred to either of these so-called “Communication Management Units” in Terre Haute, Indiana or Marion, Illinois, my father’s phone calls would be more limited than they are now, in Seagoville, Texas. His letters would be monitored, his visitation time would be reduced to four hours a month and his conversations would be restricted to English, which is his second language.
Perhaps this may seem like an illustration of an effective justice system at work. But if one diverges his or her eyes, the camouflaged truth will slowly unfold, until it comes into focus. I, for one, see a hazel-eyed girl with pale skin and soft dark curls losing her home uponIsrael’s creation in 1948. The young woman, now my paternal grandmother, often tells me about her banishment from Jaffa, a once vibrant Palestinian city known for its orange groves and turquoise beach. I also see a man who was expelled from his native Gaza City in 1967 and was not allowed to return. I grew up hearing stories from this man, my father, about the plight of Palestinians, whom he called “a voiceless population” suffering from occupation, starvation, demolished homes, uprooted trees, constrained movement and a devastated economy.
As I look deeper, I see the Holy Land Foundation rise to stardom in the eyes of human rights activists worldwide who had witnessed this charitable organization alleviate poverty in Occupied Palestine through bags of rice, boxes of medicine, conventional humanitarian aid. I see my family scrutinized throughout the 1990s due to agenda-driven reports linking my father to terrorism—reports written by individuals who saw the HLF’s strength as a threat, for they wanted Palestinians to remain weak and desolate. I see President Bush shutting down the Holy Land Foundation three months after Sept. 11, 2001, calling the action “another important step in the financial fight against terror.”
I see my father and his colleagues tried in 2007 and almost vindicated. I see him tried a second time and convicted in 2008, thereby receiving a life-long sentence. In both trials, prosecutors argued that the HLF gave money to Palestinian zakat (charity) committees that they claimed were controlled by Hamas, which the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in 1995. To prove this, prosecutors called to the stand an Israeli intelligence agent testifying under the pseudonym of Avi who claimed he could “smell Hamas.” The prosecutors intimidated the jury by showing them scenes of suicide bombings completely unaffiliated with the HLF, and they used guilt by association by linking my father and the other defendants to relatives who are members of Hamas. The defense attorneys’ argument was simple: The Holy Land Five gave charity to the same zakat committees to which the American government agency USAID (United States Agency for International Development) gave money. Furthermore, none of the zakat committees included in the HLF indictment were named on any of the U.S. Treasury Department’s lists of designated terrorist organizations.
Nationally respected human rights law professors such as David Cole have associated the Holy Land case with McCarthyism, and other experts have called it a miscarriage of justice. The book that my father gave me had this subtitle: A New Way of Looking at the World. If one looks at our world with a fresh pair of eyes, he or she will see that Jim Jacks’ request for harsher prison conditions is unnecessarily cruel, and that supporting the appeal process is the only way to achieve justice. He or she will also see that the Holy Land Five arepolitical prisoners, and that we live in a twisted time, a time when humanitarians are pursued relentlessly for political purposes.
NOOR ELASHI is a Palestinian-American and writer based in New York City.