Paper trail leads to Hamas
by Gayle Reaves and Steve McGonigle
Dallas Morning News
August 4, 1996
Inside a Kansas City auditorium in 1989, a masked man stepped to a lectern and described in Arabic the "oceans of blood" spilled in Hamas' armed attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
He thanked two nonprofit organizations for being early allies: the Islamic Association for Palestine, sponsor of the conference, and the Occupied Land Fund.
Seven years later, Hamas is again threatening Middle East peace with a series of suicide bombings. The Occupied Land Fund has become the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. That group and the IAP, both now based in Richardson, are under attack for allegedly aiding Hamas.
Leaders of the local groups denied affiliation with Hamas. Sharing a stage with Hamas speakers doesn't mean they approve of Hamas terrorism or provide support for it, they say.
"We have never raised money for Hamas or tried to recruit members for Hamas," said Shukri Abu Baker, executive director of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.
Public records, materials from the two groups and interviews over seven months show a pattern of personal, financial and philosophical ties between Hamas and the two nonprofit groups.
• The Islamic Association for Palestine reprinted the Hamas charter, which calls for killing Jews in jihad, or holy war. The association's Arabic-language publications in the early 1990s routinely praised Hamas and its violent opposition to the peace process. The association also published and distributed Hamas communiques on U.S. college campuses.
• Videotapes displaying the logo and phone number of an Islamic Association for Palestine subdivision glorify Hamas attacks on Jewish soldiers and civilians.
• Last month, the Israeli government closed the Jerusalem office of the Holy Land Foundation because of alleged ties to Hamas. Officials also closed the headquarters of an Islamic school partly funded by the Holy Land Foundation and arrested its director for allegedly being a Hamas activist.
• Mousa Abu Marzook, the political leader of Hamas, provided more than 10 percent of all donations to the Holy Land Foundation in 1992, according to Internal Revenue Service records. Mr. Marzook's wife is a cousin of Ghassan El-Ashi, a Holy Land Foundation board member, and Basman El-Ashi, a former president of the Islamic Association for Palestine.
The Israeli government alleges that Mr. Marzook is actually the military leader of Hamas and thus is involved in planning and financing the group's terrorist operations. It has filed bank records and confessions from alleged Hamas activists to support the claim.
• Israeli officials allege that Mr. Marzook and Ismail Elbarasse, a former board member of the Islamic Association for Palestine's parent organization, funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars from U.S. banks to fund Hamas terrorism. Mr. Elbarasse and Mr. Marzook are friends and formerly were business partners.
Hamas – an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement – was founded near the start of the intifada , a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas' goal is the destruction of Israel and establishment of an Islamic state.
The government of Israel and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith have alleged that the two Richardson-based groups are part of the "command and control structure" of Hamas in the United States.
Those charges have been echoed by two pro-Israel members of Congress, former FBI counterterrorism chief Oliver "Buck" Revell and in an award-winning and controversial documentary, Jihad in America, produced by journalist Steven Emerson.
U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., asked the IRS last month to revoke the Holy Land Foundation's tax-exempt status because of what she termed its support for Hamas terrorism.
Officials of the Islamic Association for Palestine and Holy Land Foundation say they want peace between Israel and the Palestinian people and that they deplore the killing of innocent people.
They admit sympathy with the Hamas cause of establishing a Palestinian state and share its opposition to the Israeli-PLO peace accord. But they argue that they are being demonized by Zionists to halt aid to and information about Palestinian Muslims.
"We've been targeted because we are very visible," said Mr. Baker, a co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation. "We are the only one focused on the needs of the Palestinian people."
Ghassan El-Ashi, another Holy Land Foundation co-founder and an incorporator of the Islamic Association for Palestine, branded the accusations "guilt by association." He called materials purporting to show links between the two nonprofit groups and Hamas "very old and shoddy."
Mr. El-Ashi said family ties to Mr. Marzook do not mean they share the same politics. Among Palestinians, he said, members of the same family are often split among political factions.
The Dallas Morning News examined court filings, business records and materials produced by the Islamic Association for Palestine and Holy Land Foundation since 1987, when Hamas was formed.
The newspaper also interviewed law enforcement officers, Middle Eastern scholars and high-ranking officials of the two nonprofit organizations.
The examination revealed two close-knit groups that often work together. The Islamic Association for Palestine, which describes itself as an information center, and the Holy Land Foundation, which raises money for Islamic charitable causes, have become prominent in the American Muslim community.
Islamic Association for Palestine publications state that the group was formed in 1981, six years before Hamas began in Gaza. Osama Abdul, vice chairman of the association, said the group was started by students at universities around the United States.
The organization also says that it supplies information about the Palestinian cause by publishing newspapers and sponsoring conferences. The group has a home page on the Internet.
Al-Zaitonah ( The Olive ), an Arabic newspaper published by the Islamic Association for Palestine, is considered in Israel to be "the Hamas paper," said Israeli journalist Roni Shaked, author of a 1993 book on Hamas.
An issue dated March 16, 1995, carried an ad for a book entitled Jews Behind Every Crime and repeated a rhyme about carrying the Palestinian fight from the hotels – that is, diplomatic talks – to the trenches.
A 1990 issue of another association publication printed song lyrics praising Hamas as "the conscience of the country" and "iron in the face of the Jews." The Islamic Association for Palestine has since ceased to publish the quarterly called Ila Falastin , Arabic for Toward Palestine.
Cartoons depicted a mosque with its minaret replaced by a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a map of the United States drawn as a target pierced with arrows.
A Palestinian-American convicted in Israel of aiding Hamas terrorism told police that both Islamic Association for Palestine papers were "published by Hamas activists." Hamas pamphlets are distributed in the occupied territories by enclosing them with Al-Zaitonah, he said.
The charter of Hamas was printed by the Islamic Association for Palestine, complete with the organization's name and local post office box address. The charter includes Hamas' motto, which lists "jihad as its methodology and death for the sake of Allah is its most coveted desire."
"There is no solution to the Palestinian Problem except by Jihad," the charter says. It refers to jihad as carrying weapons and confronting the enemy, providing equipment to the fighter and looking after his family.
Mr. Abdul said he did not know that the association had published the Hamas charter. But any Hamas statements published by the association "were published for information purposes only" because "everybody was asking about this organization," he said.
The Islamic Association for Palestine, he said, does not endorse the killing of innocent civilians.
"We as IAP, we don't feel happy when someone is killed," he said. News of the four suicide bombings that were carried out in Israel between Feb. 25 and March 4, claiming 58 lives, "worried us because we knew 2 million Palestinians will be punished" for them.
But audience members at the December 1989 conference of the Islamic Association for Palestine shouted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") when the masked Hamas spokesman talked about an ocean of blood.
In a videotape of the conference, Yaser Bushnaq, a Dallas resident who was then president of the Islamic Association for Palestine, welcomed participants. A Hamas banner draped a table, from which one speaker after another praised Hamas. The conference was named after Abdullah Azzam, considered a Hamas martyr.
Ahmed Al Qattan, a militant cleric from Kuwait, said Hamas "made the Jews shiver in fear." He led a chant that said, in part, "Long live Hamas. ... Now the stone will be replaced by the Kalashnikov."
Mr. Abdul insists that the association was not endorsing Hamas terrorism by organizing the 1989 conference. At that time, "every Palestinian was emotionally involved with the intifada . . . . If you talked to people about anything else, they would just leave you," he said.
Mr. Emerson, the documentary producer, supplied another videotape that he described as a Hamas training video. It depicts men with assault rifles re-enacting an attack on a Jewish factory. In another scene, rifle bullets spell out "Hamas" in Arabic characters. The opening frames carry the logo of Aqsa Vision Audio Visual Production. The association's Richardson telephone number is provided at the end for ordering copies.
Mr. Abdul called Aqsa Vision "the sales department of IAP," selling items with the association's logo or slogans. He said Aqsa Vision "does not produce any tapes."
He called the alleged training video "a professional cut-and-paste job" by Mr. Emerson, whom he and Muslim leaders around the country have denounced as pro-Zionist.
Mr. Emerson's 1994 documentary drew national attention to the Islamic Association for Palestine and the Holy Land Foundation. He alleged that the two organizations were part of a radical Islamic network operating within the United States.
The recent bombings by Hamas in Israel have renewed that attention, as has Israel's effort to extradite Mr. Marzook from the United States to put him on trial for terrorism. He remains in jail in New York while the extradition case is being decided.
Israel says that Mr. Marzook, a former resident of Ruston, La., is actually Hamas' military leader. He has said that he knew nothing of Hamas' military actions and is fighting extradition.
Thick volumes of records filed by Israel in the case contain extensive statements by Muhammad Salah, a Chicago-area used-car dealer who confessed to being a Hamas agent. His statements, made in early 1993, fueled Israeli charges of Hamas activism in the United States.
Mr. Salah told Israeli investigators that Mr. Marzook sent him and another Hamas leader in London to reorganize Hamas operations and distribute funds to Hamas activists in the Occupied Territories.
Last year, Mr. Salah was convicted of aiding Hamas terrorism and sentenced to five years in prison. He later recanted his confession, insisting the statements were coerced through abuse and torture.
Statements by Mr. Salah and other alleged Hamas activists describe attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. They also trace more than $200,000 provided for guns and terrorist action to a U.S. bank account.
The account, at a bank in McLean, Va., was held jointly by Mr. Marzook and Mr. Elbarasse, a former board member of the American Middle Eastern League for Palestine, an Islamic Association for Palestine parent organization.
Stanley Cohen, a New York attorney for Mr. Marzook, said it was Mr. Elbarasse who transferred $735,000 to Mr. Salah's Chicago bank account.
Mr. Salah then had $200,000 transferred to him in Israel, bank records show. When Mr. Salah was arrested, $97,000 in cash was also confiscated.
Mr. Cohen said the money did not belong to his client. Mr. Marzook did not know it had been sent to Mr. Salah, the attorney said, nor did Mr. Marzook direct how Mr. Salah should spend the funds.
A man at Mr. Elbarasse's home in Falls Church, Va., hung up the phone when a reporter asked to speak to Mr. Elbarasse.
Several current and former association officials are helping Mr. Marzook with his legal troubles. Mr. Bushnaq, the former association president, is one of two signatories on the Marzook legal defense fund, Mr. Cohen said.
Rafiq Jaber and Sabri Ibrahim, current president and vice president, respectively, of the Islamic Association for Palestine, say they also are assisting with Mr. Marzook's defense by circulating petitions and encouraging contributions. Both live in the Chicago area, where the association is planning to move its headquarters.
Mr. Marzook is also a key link between Hamas and the Holy Land Foundation, one of the largest U.S. fund-raisers for Islamic charitable causes.
Founded as the Occupied Land Fund in California in 1987, the organization renamed itself and moved to Richardson in 1992. Last year the group raised $2.25 million in donations and another $1 million in in-kind contributions, officials said.
According to Holy Land Foundation tax returns, Mr. Marzook contributed $210,000 in 1992. His personal secretary, Nasser Alkhatib, contributed another $22,450. Total contributions for the year were $2 million.
Mr. Baker, the foundation's executive director, remembered Mr. Marzook making the contribution after an Islamic conference in Kansas City.
He cited the donation as proof that there is no secret relationship between Mr. Marzook and the foundation. Mr. Marzook knew his contribution would be reported, Mr. Baker said.
At the time, Mr. Baker said, Mr. Marzook had not stated publicly that he was a leader of Hamas.
"We'll take any money if it's legal," the Holy Land Foundation director said.
Mr. Marzook, through his attorney, denied making the contribution. Mr. Cohen said the donation came from Mr. Elbarasse.
"I'm saying that transaction was from the joint account and had nothing to do with Mr. Marzook," he said. "I'm sorry. Mousa Marzook did not donate $210,000 to them."
Mr. Cohen acknowledged that Mr. Marzook's wife, Nadia, invested $250,000 in 1993 in InfoCom Corp., a Richardson computer company run by her cousin, Bayan El-Ashi. Mr. El-Ashi is the brother of Ghassan El-Ashi, the foundation's treasurer and InfoCom's international marketing director.
Ghassan El-Ashi declined to discuss whether Mrs. Marzook was an investor in InfoCom, and he referred questions to Mr. Cohen.
There is an even stronger link between Hamas and the Holy Land Foundation than Mr. Marzook – one which Mr. Baker and Ghassan El-Ashi readily admit and defend.
The Holy Land Foundation provides grants to schools, clinics, mosques and other social service organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere to meet Muslim humanitarian needs.
Publications say the Holy Land Foundation raises money for widows, orphans, the homeless and "families of martyrs." The group boasts it was the first to aid 413 suspected Hamas activists whom Israel deported to Lebanon in 1992.
In Gaza and the West Bank, Middle East experts say, Hamas is widely regarded as one of the largest and most efficient providers of social services. The Holy Land Foundation helps support some of those Hamas institutions.
The Islamic University of Gaza is listed by the foundation as one recipient. It is known as a Hamas bastion; Mr. Marzook was one of its founders.
Mr. Baker said the Holy Land Foundation does not care about the political leanings of the people whose programs it funds. "Our humanitarian work is not colored by political reality in that area," he said.
Mr. Abdul of the Islamic Association for Palestine denied that Hamas operates social service agencies – that is a Zionist mischaracterization, he said.
Dr. Philip Mattar, executive director of the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington, said Hamas' social service system is undeniable.
"Hamas does run social and health services in the West Bank. There's no doubt about it," he said. "Most of their money goes to running those services. But they benefit enormously in that it generates an enormous amount of good will, especially in underdeveloped areas."
In many such organizations in the Middle East, accusations of corruption are common. "You won't find too much corruption among Hamas organizations," Dr. Mattar said. "They are quite puritanical."
Another recipient of Holy Land Foundation funds was an Islamic school operated by Jamil Hamami. Mr. Hamami, who has been called a Hamas leader by Israel, has been detained several times. His Faith School is one of the most respected in the West Bank, Mr. Baker said.
Since the bombings began in March, Israeli authorities have shut down many Muslim charities because of suspected Hamas ties. Among those closed was the Holy Land Foundation's Jerusalem office.
"Yes, that was because they are claiming we have Hamas ties," Mr. Baker said. He called Israel's action "a political move" that the foundation is challenging in Israeli court.
Ms. Lowey, the congresswoman who is seeking to revoke the foundation's tax-exempt status, contended that the Holy Land Foundation's aid to Hamas-run charities and deportees is proof of the foundation's support for terrorism.
"If you're raising money for Hamas activists, you're raising money for Hamas," she said in a statement.
Money not traced
Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, said U.S. officials have not been able to trace money raised by Muslim charities in the United States to Middle East terrorism. But he said contributions to the Hamas social service network can benefit its military operations.
"You can give money to a specific hospital in Gaza, for example, and that money will go there," he said. "And if that money is controlled by Hamas, that frees up money that can go for bad things."
Mr. Baker said the Holy Land Foundation is considering a fund-raising campaign to rebuild houses for families of suicide bombers. The Israeli government has demolished more than 100 such homes, he said.
The demolitions are against international law because they are "collective punishment" aimed at a large group of people rather than at specific individuals convicted of crimes, he said.
"My obligation as a humanitarian is to go there and rebuild those houses," he said. "I don't want the rest of the children to go and blow themselves up because they see the world is full of injustice."
Mr. Baker, who has spent half his life in the West and whose mother is Christian, said he believes Israel has a right to exist. He said Israel's Zionist government should put aside its bigotry and permit Palestinians to have a country, too.
"A lot of good Jews are doing wonderful things in this country and everywhere. They do not deserve my anger or hate," he said. "A lot of bad Muslims are doing bad things. They deserve my frustration.
"But if you want to . . . [base] all your positions and attitudes in this life on religion or ethnicity or political backgrounds, you're doomed to be a failure."