A former U.S. diplomat spoke in glowing terms Tuesday about the Palestinian charities supported by the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). Edward Abington, a former consul general at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, was the first defense witness in the terror-support trial of the Richardson Tex.-based foundation and five of its former officers.
Prosecutors spent the past six weeks detailing links between the Palestinian charities, known as zakat committees, and HAMAS, a designated foreign terrorist organization. While much of the money went to humanitarian relief, anything that went to benefit HAMAS violated U.S. law, the government contends.
Jurors heard a much different account from Abington. For example, he described the Al Ghazi hospital in Jenin as "clean" and contrasted that with the Israeli military hospital where he found conditions "abysmal."
The hospital has been linked to HAMAS. In June 2002, Israeli security forces arrested Mustafa Amjad, a doctor at the Al Ghazi hospital, who had been recruited by HAMAS to smuggle suicide bombers from Jenin into Israel.
To Abington, HAMAS is a "radical fundamentalist" group, but not Islamist. He described an Islamist as a "pious Muslim" who follows the five pillars of Islam, including charitable giving (zakat) and undertaking the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
Abington also testified that he found information from Shin Bet and other Israeli intelligence agencies to be unreliable and believed the Israelis have an "agenda" to "influence US thinking."
He accused Israel of using documents seized during Operation Defensive Shield, a military offensive launched by Israel in response to terrorist attacks in April 2002, as propaganda material "to undermine the reputation of the Palestinian Authority." Documents from that military operation have been presented as evidence by Israeli security officials who testified anonymously.
During cross examination, prosecutor Barry Jonas noted that Abington earned $750,000 a year during seven years as the chief lobbyist for the PLO, which led the Palestinian Authority, after leaving the State Department. Prior to resigning from the government in 1999, Abington negotiated a $400 million deal between the State Department and Yasser Arafat.
Abington spoke highly of zakat, or charity committees. He said the charities were "necessary" for Palestinian people to survive and challenged prosecution claims that committees HLF supported in Qalqilia, Hebron, Jenin and Nablus operated on behalf of HAMAS. When asked whether he remembered the shutting down of the Islamic Charitable Society of Hebron in 1996 because of its links to HAMAS, he said he could not recall specifics but he vaguely remembered that the summer camps had been shut down. He denied knowledge of any schools being funded by HAMAS.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) gave money to some of the same charity committees HLF funded, Abington said. Jurors were not told that USAID terminated HLF's registration in September 2000. In a letter to HLF chief executive and current defendant Shukri Abu Baker, a USAID official explained why it was removing HLF's name from the agency's registry of private and voluntary organizations. The Investigative Project on Terrorism received a copy of the letter through the Freedom of Information Act.
"One condition of USAID's registration procedure is that is the organization is not the subject of a decision by the Department of State to the effect that registration, or a financial relationship between USAID and the organization, is contrary to the national defense, national security, or foreign policy interests of the United States," the letter reads. "By letter dated August 30, 2000, the Department of State informed USAID that it has determined that continuation of HLF's registration with USAID is contrary to the national defense and foreign policy interests of the United States."