A prominent Palestinian-American rights group that ordinarily advocates nonviolent protests held a conference in Chicago last month that included a lecture on how to “navigate the fine line between legal activism and material support for terrorism.”
At the event, sponsored by American Muslims for Palestine, a Milwaukee attorney and board member of the group accused U.S. policymakers of working to “criminalize the support of the Palestinian people.” The American government was doing this at “the behest of the Israeli government, its lobby,” added American Muslims for Palestine Vice President Munjed Ahmad, by forbidding charitable assistance to groups that are designated as foreign terrorist organizations and their supporters.
“We have to ensure that whatever we do, we’re not providing assistance to these so-called terrorist organizations,” Ahmad continued, seeming to question the legal justification for labeling them as such. A transcript and an audio recording of his remarks were obtained by The Daily Beast.
Ahmad added, “What’s very sad to me when we talk about terrorist organizations is that the state of Israel is not considered a terrorist organization. Uh, with our government, but it truly is the largest terrorist of all. Truly,” Ahmad said as his audience applauded.
The conference was attended by a number of prominent activists, academics, and others who represent the mainstream of the pro-Palestinian movement in the United States. Ahmad encouraged attendees to “continue to assist and advocate for Palestinians morally and even financially,” while being careful to steer clear of terrorism financing laws.
On the one hand, that sounds like good legal advice. But it was unclear why the conference sponsor—which is outwardly committed to legal forms of protest, including boycotts, and sanctions, and rallies on college campuses—felt the need to provide advice on how to provide financial assistance without running afoul of well-established anti-terrorism laws.
“I think this speaks to the fact that you have a new generation of charities and activist groups that now understand, very clearly, where that line is, and they’re very careful not to cross it,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department who helped designate terrorist financiers, and who’s now the vice president of research for the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Certainly some of those attending the conference had experience walking that line in the past. Among the conference sponsors was the Mosque Foundation. Two of its leaders, Jamal Said and Kifah Mustapha, were unindicted co-conspirators in a U.S. criminal trial against the Holy Land Foundation, which the Treasury Department accused of supporting Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. The group was designated as a terrorist organization in December 2001.
Of another group on the terrorist blacklist, Hamas, whose rocket fire from Gaza prompted a massive Israeli military response last summer, one of Ahmad’s fellow panelist remarked, “The most important thing is to not accept the premise of the question” of whether activists do or don’t support the group, which has been a designated terrorist organization since 1997.
“Supporting Hamas, or not supporting Hamas is not the issue,” said Israeli activist Miko Peled. “Because Hamas is not the issue. Hamas is one aspect of Palestine. Hamas would never have been established had it not been for the brutal occupation and oppression of Palestine because Hamas is a resistance organization.”
In his public remarks, Ahmad stopped short of providing any specific techniques for how to navigate around terrorism financing laws. But he sought to put armed resistance to Israel, including by Hamas, on a solid legal footing, arguing that the right to resist occupation “is thoroughly enshrined in international law,” including the United Nations charter.
“Palestinians have the right to use arms,” he said, comparing fighters who have launched rockets from Gaza against Israel to French and American revolutionaries of the 18th century. Ahmad went on to quote from a UN resolution that he said “reaffirms the legitimacy” of a people to resist “colonial and foreign domination… by all available means, particularly armed struggle.”
The United States, Ahmad argued, had “never sided with the principles of international law, with the right to self-determination” because it supports Israel. Ahmad further accused “militant Jews” from the United States who have volunteered to fight with the Israeli military of helping to commit “war crimes” against the people of Gaza and Palestine during operations this past summer, adding, “there have been a number of American Jews whose parents are columnists at the [New York Times] who have fought with the Israeli Occupation forces…”
Ahmad didn’t name names, but the son of Times columnist David Brooks, for one, recently volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces.
In response to questions about his remarks, Ahmad told The Daily Beast that his use of the phrase “so-called” terrorist organizations “comes within a general legal framework regarding the terrorism designation and how fluid it became in the U.S., considering that Islamophobia is a reality that we contend with; it is my way of disagreeing with the government’s approach.”
Ahmad added that “as Palestinian and Muslim Americans, we, as a community, are alarmed by the government targeting Muslims as a class in material support cases and using it to silence the community.” He argued that his discussion was important because “advocacy for Palestine has been chilled” after people have become fearful of advocating and giving money to “legitimate relief organizations because they are worried they will be visited by law enforcement.”
Terrorist organizations are publicly designated by the government, and in recent years the Treasury Department has not sought to add many new organizations to the list, Schanzer said.
In his remarks, Ahmad doubted that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could ever be peaceably settled. “I do believe in the peaceful resistance. But I do think if you look at history and you do believe that history has a tendency to do what? Repeat itself. That the history of the world shows that aside from India, I cannot think of one country that was able to gain its independence to simply nonviolent resistance or without having an armed struggle,” he said.
A spokesperson for American Muslims for Palestine didn’t respond to requests for comment. The group’s “sole purpose,” according to a statement on its website, “is to educate the American public and media about issues related to Palestine and its rich cultural and historical heritage.”