The daughters of Mohammad El Mezain, Shukri Abu Baker, Ghassan Elashi, Mufid Abdulqader, and Abdulrahman Odeh, the Holy Land Five essentially imprisoned for giving charity to Palestinians, have released two new videos marking ten years of their fathers’ persecution at the hands of the United States government.
Many Palestinians remember the help the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) once offered them. As I wrote in his Gaza City office this afternoon, my friend Yousef Aljamal, sitting next to me, unexpectedly commented, “My sister was 18 when the HLF was closed. She had just gotten a scholarship from them, but because they were shut down, she wasn’t able to use it.” And I am reminded of the relief the HLF gave families struggling under apartheid every time I pass a worn sign marking one of their former sites here.
Shortly after a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court denied the Five’s most recent appeal, Ghassan Elashi, the former HLF chairman sentenced to 65 years, wrote to me from his Communication Management Unit in Marion, Illinois:
I was not surprised with the 5th circuit ruling. Despite agreeing that the district court made 4 major legal errors, they considered them harmless. Not a mention of the occupation and the suffering of the Palestinians. It is unjust persecution of the Palestinian cause. Whatever Israel does is always justified. Amazingly non of the Zakat Committees board members have ever been prosecuted in Israel for what the US government charged us with. If we were prosecuted in Israel and got convicted we would have got 3 years prison term.
In the aftermath of the ruling a couple of weeks earlier, his daughter Noor wrote:
The case of the Holy Land Five comes down to this: American foreign policy has long been openly favorable towards Israel, and therefore, an American charity established primarily for easing the plight of the Palestinians became an ultimate target. As my father said during our 15-minute phone call on Thursday, “The politics of this country are not on our side. If we had been anywhere else, we would’ve been honored for our work.”
This month could have marked a milestone. The leaders of our country could have learned from our past. The day the towers fell could have been a time to stop fear from dominating reason instead of a basis to prosecute. The HLF would have continued to triumph, providing relief to Palestinians and other populations worldwide in the form of food, clothing, wheelchairs, ambulances, furniture for destroyed homes, back-to-school projects and orphan sponsorship programs. And more notably, my father would not have been incarcerated. My family and I would have been able to call him freely and embrace him without a plexiglass wall.
Yet my father was charged under the ambiguous Material Support Statute with sending humanitarian aid to Palestinian distribution centers known as zakat committees that prosecutors claimed were fronts for Hamas. He was prosecuted despite the fact that USAID—an American government agency—and many other NGO’s were providing charity to the very same zakat committees …
In the next few weeks, defense attorneys plan to ask the entire panel of appellate judges to re-hear the case, and if that petition is denied, they will take it to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, my father waits in prison. This Thursday, when I spoke to him, it had been the first time in several weeks since he received a phone call ban for writing his name on a yoga mat, which prison officials saw as “destruction of government property.” I told him that during the tenth anniversary of the HLF shutting down, the name of the charity is still alive and that he will not be forgotten. My father is my pillar, whose high spirits transcend all barbed-wire-topped fences, whose time in prison did not stifle his passion for human rights. In fact, when I asked him about the first thing he’ll do when he’s released, my father said, “I would walk all the way to Richardson, Texas carrying a sign that says, ‘End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.’ ”