DALLAS – Defense attorneys for five men accused of illegally routing millions of dollars to Hamas rested their case Thursday after hearing from a former diplomat who questioned government claims that a series of Palestinian charities were controlled by the terrorist group.
Edward Abington, a former consul general at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, said he met with members of the charities, known as zakat committees, in Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Gaza from 1993-97. Though he was briefed by U.S. government officials, he was never told of any Hamas connection.
Abington said his office received "very strict instructions" from the U.S. government that consulate officials were not to have any interaction with Hamas. But "I had no information as consul general that Hamas controlled any zakat committees," he said. There was no official policy restricting communication with the committees.
That assertion is at odds with the heart of the government's case – that the men, in running the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) routed millions of dollars to Hamas through the committees. But under cross examination, Abington acknowledged he was unaware of information being gathered by criminal investigators and even the Palestinian Authority. Earlier in the trial, prosecutors presented a former HLF fundraiser who told jurors he was certain his donations to HLF would help Hamas.
Abington's interactions with the committees were part of a wide range of meetings with Palestinian government officials, members of charities and nongovernmental organizations to assess local views on U.S. policies and "see if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was working," Abington said. He routinely reported on what he learned to the State Department.
During their case, prosecutors presented evidence showing active Hamas members and activists served on the zakat committee governing boards. An Israeli Security Agency lawyer testified that the connections were well known among Palestinians in the West Bank.
Under cross examination, federal prosecutor James Jacks asked Abington if he "received briefings from the U.S. government before visiting the charities?" Abington said he "asked whether I would run into Hamas people there and I was told ‘No, they are fine.'" In his view, "there is a difference between having a member of Hamas on the zakat committee and the zakat committees being controlled by Hamas."
Jacks contended that Abington's positive perception of the charities stemmed from the fact that Abington was working from just the information made "available" to him. He was not privy to government intelligence documents and other information that confirmed Hamas links to the charities. "You were not privy to ongoing investigations [regarding zakat committees]?" Jacks asked. "Yes, that's correct," Abington replied.
Abington also testified that he found information from Israeli intelligence agencies of "questionable reliability."
Additionally, Abington was asked about a document prepared by the Palestinian Authority titled "Who is Financing Hamas." Abington identified the signature on the document to be that of Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Under the section "Hamas Financial Resources Worldwide," the document lists the Islamic Association for Palestine, Holy Land Fund (HLF), and the United Association for Studies and Research. All three entities were listed as members of a Palestine Committee created by the Muslim Brotherhood to advance the Hamas cause in America.
Earlier, defense attorney Nancy Hollander asked Abington what he knew about HLF during his time as a representative of the U.S. in Jerusalem. Abington described the HLF as a "very large Palestinian American charitable organization" that had a "good reputation."
During cross examination, Abington could not remember the names of zakat committee officials with whom he met, saying it had been 15 years since his visits to zakat committees in Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Hebron, and Gaza. Jacks then showed him a December 2001 letter from the Director of Operations of the Palestinian Intelligence Service, Major Khalid Abu-Yaman, on the Palestinian Authority letterhead. The letter said: "Officials and members of this [Ramallah] committee are associated with the Hamas Movement and some of them are activists in the Movement."
While he denied Hamas links for the charities in Hebron, Ramallah, Jenin, and Nablus, Abington agreed there were some charities run by Hamas. Asked to name some, Abington could only come up with one: The Al-Salah Society located in Gaza.
Jacks noted that Abington worked as lobbyist for the Palestinian Authority (PA) for seven years after retiring from the State Department. His company, Bannerman and Associates, was paid $750,000 the first year and $600,000 per year for the subsequent years for representing the PLO, which led the Authority. Abington said he was the one who signed the PA as a client, which generated some criticism that he may have been too close to the Authority during his time in the consulate.
Jacks pointed to a close, personal relationship Abington shared with Arafat, including during his term as consul general.
Jacks then asked about financial corruption within the PA as one of the reasons "for difficulties in the Palestinian territories." Arafat's personal net worth was estimated at $300 million by Fortune magazine, he said, asking Abington: "Was the PA perceived to be corrupt?"
"I don't think so," Abington said. Jacks then countered that "part of the attraction of people to Hamas was that they were clean" leading Abington to concede: "I think that's one of the factors that led to the support for Hamas."
Jacks asked Abington if Arafat was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Abington replied yes.
Prosecutors are expected to present a short rebuttal case Monday before closing arguments begin.