Sunday, July 10, 2011

Obama Administration Using Anti-Terror Laws to Intimidate and Harass American Pro-Palestine Activists

The Obama administration is using the prohibition on material support like a weapon against activists trying to break Israel’s blockade. 

For the past year, as activists prepared for the participation of an American boat in the flotilla seeking to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, organizers tried to come up with a way to circumvent a major obstacle: the prohibition against “material support” for State Department-designated terrorist groups.

But now, as pressure intensifies on the countries from where boats will launch, the prohibition on material support remains a potent weapon the Obama administration wields to pressure American activists who plan to set sail to break Israel’s blockade.  

American officials continue to repeatedly threaten to prosecute the U.S. activists involved with the flotilla. And, perhaps most importantly, it represents the latest action in the Obama administration’s crackdown on Palestine solidarity activists across the U.S—a crackdown that is a continuation of similar efforts made by the Bush administration in cases like the Holy Land 5.

Currently, the international flotilla to Gaza--which comes about a year after a similar one was raided by the Israeli Navy--has been held up due to reported acts of sabotage activists say is the work of Israel and obstacles put in place by the Greek government. Armed Greek commandos turned back the American-flagged boat on July 1 after the ship, The Audacity of Hope, attempted to leave Greek waters for Gaza.

The ship’s American captain was arrested and then held in Greek jail, reportedly charged with “disturbing sea traffic and endangering passengers.” The captain was released early Tuesday. The Greek government’s repression, though, may turn out to be the least of the U.S. solidarity activists’ troubles.

In the months leading up to the second Freedom Flotilla, U.S. Boat to Gaza activists decided to carry cargo of a much different sort than earlier Gaza-bound boats: 3,000 letters from American citizens addressed to the citizens of Gaza as a symbolic act of solidarity.

“The letters project underscores the need to really express--not only to this country, but to countries around the world--the friendship and the solidarity that we have with the people of Gaza,” said Leslie Cagan, a longtime anti-war activist and the coordinator for the American boat to Gaza.

That cargo, they reasoned, couldn’t be construed as material support for a designated terrorist group, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip after being democratically elected in 2006.

Organizations on the State Department’s “foreign terrorist” list are put there by the Secretary of State, and most major Palestinian political factions are listed.

“As risky in some ways this whole venture is for the people who are going to be on the boat--given how the Israelis behaved last time--we did not want to put an additional burden on the people going on the U.S. boat,” said Cagan, in an interview shortly before the American passengers left for Greece. “So we made a decision; instead of challenging the material aid law of the U.S., we would just stay focused on the Israeli naval blockade.”

But much to the chagrin of the U.S. Boat to Gaza, it looks like the American flotilla activists will have to deal with the specter of prosecution.  A June 24 statement from the State Department bluntly warns that “delivering or attempting or conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas, could violate U.S. civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a potential 2012 presidential candidate, echoed the State Department in a June 29 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. According to the Associated Press, Perry’s letter “suggested that Holder prosecute the protesters for providing materials or assistance to a terrorist organization.” And while on a recent trip to Israel, New York Democrats Gary Ackerman and Nita Lowey also said that Americans should be prosecuted if they participate in the flotilla.

The American activists who plan to set sail for the Gaza Strip soon as part of the second Freedom Flotilla have rejected the American officials’ claims. In an interview with Think Progress, which asked whether “contacts with groups listed by the U.S. as terrorists” were made by the U.S. Boat to Gaza, Richard Levy, a lawyer and a passenger on The Audacity of Hope, categorically said no.

“The only contact we’ve had is with an arts group in Gaza and a civil society group there. We’ve been very careful to avoid contact that would create those kinds of problems,” he said.

The threats of prosecution are “outrageous,” said Maria LaHood, a staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which has been working with the U.S. Boat to Gaza. “The [Obama administration] doesn’t have a legal case...It would be a political farce and solely done to intimidate them and suppress their political support for the human rights of Palestinians.”

First passed in 1996 as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the material support provision makes it a crime to “knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.” “Material support,” according to the CCR, is “defined in the statute to include almost any kind of support for blacklisted groups, including humanitarian aid, training, expert advice, ‘services’ in almost any form, and political advocacy.” People convicted of providing material support to a designated terrorist group face up to 15 years in prison.

The 2001 Patriot Act broadened the definition of material support to include “expert advice or assistance,” and in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the law. Critics of the law say it stifles free speech and criminalizes nonviolent activity.

While the Supreme Court decision was met with criticism from an array of quarters, including the editorial boards of the Washington Post and the New York Timesthe Obama administration has forged ahead in using the law to target activists.

And it hasn’t only targeted the U.S. citizens taking part in the second Freedom Flotilla to Gaza -- 23 U.S. activists, some of them involved in Palestine solidarity work, currently face subpoenas from the FBI, which is looking for evidence of material support of terrorism.

The Obama administration’s crackdown on U.S. activists started September 24, 2010, when FBI agents raided the homes of activists across the country and confiscated computers, documents, cell phones and more. All of the activists have refused to cooperate with the grand jury looking into the case, a number of Congress members have spoken out against the raids, and numerous protests have taken place in support of the peace and justice activists.

One Palestinian-American and Chicago-based activist, Hatem Abudayyeh, whose house was raided in September 2010, had his bank account temporarily frozen in May 2011 in a move widely thought to be connected to the coordinated FBI raids.

The activists targeted say the grand jury represents a test case for Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Supreme Court case that held up the material support law.

FBI documents accidentally left behind during a raid on Minneapolis-based activists seem to confirm Palestine solidarity activists’ suspicion that their work is being targeted for political reasons.

One document lists questions the FBI planned to pose to the activists. “Have you ever assisted...someone raising funds for a trip to Israel, West Bank or Gaza?” reads one question. Another reads, “What do you think of terrorist groups?”

Palestine solidarity activists say they have not broken any laws, and are instead being targeted for organizing against the Israeli occupation at a time when the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is growing in the U.S.  

“The Palestine solidarity movement, more than any other international solidarity movement in this country, is really shaking things up and changing the narrative and the dynamic,” said Maureen Murphy, a Palestine solidarity activist who was subpoenaed and who is the managing editor of the Electronic Intifada. “Because we are really changing things, that’s why those in power who have an interest in preserving business as usual are going to resort to these legal tools of trying to stop people’s political work.”

The targeted activists say they will continue to resist the Obama administration’s efforts to criminalize Palestine solidarity work.

“It’s important that more people than ever stand up and make their voices heard, because the more of us there are standing up, the harder it is for them to go after just a select few,” said Murphy.

The U.S. citizens and flotilla participants currently battling the Greek authorities over the impoundment of their boat have taken a similar attitude. They insist they will sail to Gaza, despite the threats of prosecution and the pressure being exerted on them by the Greek government. Reports emerged on July 3 that the international flotilla would set sail toward Gaza this week. However, both the American and Canadian flotilla boats, after setting sail, were tracked down by Greek commandoes and brought back to Greek ports, where their boats remain.

The headline on a July 2 press release from the U.S. Boat to Gaza summed up the American activists’ defiance: “Passengers Set Sail Again.”

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