Foundation says US froze its assets upon Israel’s urging

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By Barbara Ferguson, Arab News Correspondent

Published — Thursday 6 December 2001

Last Update 6 December 2001 3:00 am

WASHINGTON, 6 December — The founder and chief executive officer of the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, Shukri Abu Baker, whose assets were frozen on Tuesday by President Bush for allegedly funneling money to the Palestinian group Hamas, told Arab News yesterday in an interview that Bush had done so upon the urging of Israel.

Abu Baker believes that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon persuaded President Bush to freeze their assets during a meeting of the two leaders in the White House on Sunday.

"I think Sharon has more leverage on our policies that the US Constitution," Baker said as he left Holy Land headquarters in Texas. "I think it was the Sharon-Bush meeting."

President Bush supported this theory Tuesday, saying he and Sharon had decided to "join forces against terrorism," during their meeting on Sunday.

"I commiserated with him, because a lot of innocent people had been killed or hurt as a result of terrorist activity," the president said during an appearance in Florida. "I think the Israeli people want to have peace."

"But we learned in such a vivid way that there are elements in the Middle East that hate the thought of peace and will be willing to use terror to derail any type of peace process."

These elements, President Bush said, include Hamas, which he insisted were funded by US-based charities.

"The Holy Land Foundation claims that the money it solicits goes to care for needy Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza," President Bush said.

"But money raised by the Holy Land Foundation is used by Hamas to support schools and indoctrinate children to grow up into suicide bombers," the president said. "Money raised by the Holy Land Foundation is also used by Hamas to recruit suicide bombers and to support their families."

Holy Land’s CEO disagrees. "He doesn’t know what he is talking about. What evidence do they have?" said Abu Baker.

"As far as we know we have no connection with any terrorist foundation, we have always abided with US laws," Abu Baker told Arab News yesterday on his cellular phone. "We are not in any way connected with any terrorist group."

"We give basic humanitarian assistance to children. And, out of the 10,000 children we have sponsored throughout the years, if they say we have done an act of terrorism by feeding children, then I don’t know what the government is talking about," said Abu Baker.

"We can refute all their charges against us. They are echoing Israeli propaganda, all that (the US government) said yesterday was echoing Israeli propaganda that can hardly be qualified as being based on valid information.

"I am having a hard time understanding what exactly the administration is furious about," said Abu Baker. "This has nothing to do with terrorism. Sharon cashed in his chips with the American administration; he wants to finish the Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank. It’s a total crackdown on Palestinian activists, and anything that puts a human face on the Palestinian cause."

Last year, Holy Land Foundation Relief and Development, based in Richardson, Texas, raised $13 million in the US. The group offers food, clothing and shelter, and a variety of other services to poor Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Federal agents on Tuesday seized records in Holy Land offices in Texas, California, New Jersey and Illinois. Their telephones lines were also disconnected, and their phone records were seized. All of these records could ultimately be shared with Israeli intelligence.

Abu Baker said the foundation planned to hold a press conference yesterday. "Then we will issue a public statement to outline our course of action. We intend to pursue this, what has happened to us, which is a violation of American civil liberties."

Experts say it doesn’t matter if Holy Land Foundation does meaningful work to help the poor, if some of the money they raise is used to support terrorism.

"We are a humanitarian organization, we don’t have political connections, and we don’t have ties to anything. All our ties are to people in need, and that’s it," said Dalal Muhammad, Holy Land Foundation’s emergency relief coordinator.

Muhammad says that what has angered both Israeli and the American governments is the group’s aid to impoverished families of Palestinian suicide bombers. "If somebody came here, say, Jonathan Pollard — a convicted spy — and if his family came in and needed assistance, we would not deny them assistance. We would feed them, we would shelter them. That’s what our foundation does. That’s what a humanitarian foundation is supposed to do."

Muhammad says her organization run up against Israeli intelligence because they helped families whose homes the Israeli Army had destroyed — in retaliation for alleged Palestinian violence against Israel.

"Since the start of the Intifada, in September 2000, when Palestinian homes were being demolished again, we worked side by side with the United Nations helping these displaced families. The UN put them in tents and we gave them all the items they needed to continue to live. We gave them mattresses, we gave them food, and we gave them stoves. Our work is very transparent, everybody sees our work and knows what we do. I’m telling you — we, in no way, condone any form of terrorism."

Muhammad charged that the move against Holy Land Foundation is rooted in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and propelled by the recent suicide bombings in Israel.

The Bush administration said Tuesday that it had scheduled federal action against the Holy Land Foundation for later this month, but moved up the seizure date to demonstrate solidarity with Israel following the weekend attacks.

Israel praised the president’s action, and described it as cutting off the umbilical cord of terrorism.

Abu Baker said the Bush administration’s action has effectively put them out of business. Nevertheless, he said they will fight in federal court to clear their name.

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