In any meeting that spans two days, there's going to be a lot of idle chatter and distractions. It was no different when 25 dedicated Islamists met in a Philadelphia hotel in 1993 to map out a strategy for opposing an American-led peace accord.
While all five defendants in the Hamas-support trial against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) were not present, the meeting is vital to sweeping conspiracy counts against them. In those two days, two dozen meeting participants laid out their reasons for wanting the peace effort to fail, along with their concern about the repercussions that could result from openly stating their beliefs.
Participants were unaware that the FBI was monitoring their conversations. Now jurors have hours of audio tape, mostly in Arabic, and hundreds of pages of translated transcripts. To streamline their work, prosecutors and investigators created excerpts of the meeting, showing the conversations they consider most significant.
Those excerpts show how the group assigned roles to HLF and related entities that allowed them to undermine the fledgling Palestinian Authority while continuing to support Hamas – all under the guise of charity.
Some ground rules were set early in the meeting. Defendant Shukri Abu Baker, HLF's long-time executive director, instructs his colleagues not to say the word "Hamas," but refer instead to "Samah," which is "Hamas" spelled backwards. Participants often forgot to heed this request.
The challenges discussed in the meeting were clear: If the freshly-signed Oslo Accords succeeded, the Islamists in Hamas would be on the outside looking in at a new Palestinian government, led by the secular Fatah movement. And it would be a giant step toward a peaceful two-state solution that the Hamas charter clearly prohibits. Members of the group embraced the rejectionist approach.
Abdelhaleem al-Ashqar, a Palestine Committee member, says the objective is "to derail the agreement. This is the Muslims' program, originally, in order to cause the alternatives in front of them to fail and in order to make people aware of the facts."
Ashqar was charged himself, in a separate case, with conspiring to provide material support to Hamas. Jurors in Chicago acquitted him of those charges in 2007, but convicted him of criminal contempt and obstruction of justice after he refused to testify before a federal grand jury investigating Hamas support in America. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison after telling a federal judge in Chicago he would rather go to jail than "become a traitor or collaborator."
But in Philadelphia, no one challenged the goal he defined. In another transcript excerpt, a speaker identified as Abdel Rahman emphasizes that support for the families of martyrs and prisoners would help derail Oslo:
"…the most important thing we can provide in this stage is to support Jihad in Palestine. I believe it is the only way if we want to bring the goals of the [peace] accord to fail. We would, at least, keep within the people's spirit. We as a organization – as a non-profit organization – are not able to do that."
That's because it was politically untenable to take a public stand against peace. In another excerpt, a speaker identified only as Gawad spells out the challenge:
"You're (sic) no longer have the right to resist occupation. All of that will be classified according to the American concept. There is no occupation now. There is an understanding and there are no weapons to be carried because there is no occupation to be fought. There is no more suffering because of the occupation. Suffering is now in the hands of the local government. This will be classified as terrorism according to America. How are you going to do it? How are you going to perform Jihad?"
Throughout the two-days of meetings, the participants returned to this point. They couldn't come right out and say they opposed anything that fell short of a Palestinian state with borders that preceded Israel's existence or insist that such a state be ruled by Islamic law.
Abdel Rahman suggests emphasizing humanitarian care. It would go to needy families, with an emphasis on the families of martyrs and prisoners:
"But, those people have a direct relationship with Jihad and they must get more money and more thought [from us]. In our letters we send to people, we ought to place emphasis on the families of the martyrs, the prisoners, the orphans and the families of the wounded."
Omar Ahmad, in response to another speaker's question, says, "We've always demanded the 1948 territories."
"Yes," the unnamed speaker replies. "But we don't say that publicly. You cannot say that publicly, in front of the Americans."
"No," Ahmad agrees, "We didn't say that to the Americans."
The Oslo Accords complicated the debate, Baker explains. Before, resistance could be cast as a legitimate response to occupation. But Oslo creates a Palestinian government, Baker says, cutting into that argument and making any violence look like an obstacle to peace:
"I swear by your God that war is deception," Baker tells Ahmad. "War is deception. We are fighting our enemy with a kind heart and we never thought of deceiving it. War is deception. Deceive, camouflage, pretend that you're leaving while you're walking that way…Deceive your enemy."
Perhaps the following exchange in this excerpt sums up the government's theory of the case as well as anything. An unidentified speaker has just summarized the points of a previous session, including the group's designation of the Islamic Association for Palestine as "the main source of information" for Hamas in the U.S. Courts have found that the IAP served as a propaganda arm for Hamas, publishing its charter in English and publishing Hamas statements in its magazine.
"It expresses the (Hamas) Movement's position, but it doesn't say I represent this side or anything like that," the unnamed speaker said.
HLF's Shukri Abu Baker responds: "It should lie, you mean."
"It shouldn't talk," the man says, drawing laughter. "It shouldn't lie. It shouldn't talk."
Baker then invokes his earlier axiom: "War is deception."
To which IAP chairman Omar Ahmad, who would go on to help establish the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) the following summer, puts it in perspective:
"Learn from your masters in the (Holy Land) Fund," he said, eliciting further laughter.