The Department of Homeland Security’s arrest of Palestinian community activist Rasmea Yousef Odeh at her home in the Chicago suburbs on Tuesday was an act of political repression, dozens of groups around the US stated this week.
Odeh, associate director of the Arab American Action Network, a social services and community organization in Chicago, faces imprisonment and deportation for alleged immigration fraud. Released on bond, she is due in court in Detroit next month.
The indictment charges that 66-year-old Odeh failed to disclose a conviction in Israel on her citizenship application. It states that Odeh was convicted by an Israeli military court in 1969 for alleged membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and alleged involvement in two bombings in Jerusalem, one of which killed two civilians.
There has been an outpouring of support for Odeh, including a statement from prominent groups that Odeh is being targeted for her community activism. Her arrest comes at a time when “federal authorities, along with Israel and its supporters in the US, are continuing to search for ways to intimidate and silence those who are effective advocates for Arab American communities, and who speak out for Palestinian rights,” the groups state.
The statement has been signed by dozens of organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, the US Palestinian Community Network and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
The groups note that Israel’s “military courts operate exclusively to subjugate occupied Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They routinely bypass all but a modicum of due process, and justify holding individuals without charge or trial for months and years, often in abusive conditions and subject to torture.”
Amnesty International states that Palestinians who go through the military court system “face a wide range of abuses of their right to a fair trial. They are routinely interrogated without a lawyer and, although they are civilians, are tried before military not ordinary courts.”
Odeh has previously been public about her arrest, describing in a documentary film the torture including sexual abuse she says she endured during the ten years she was in Israeli prison. Odeh was released and her sentence commuted as part of a prisoner release deal in 1979, when she was deported to Lebanon.
Odeh earned a law degree in Jordan and immigrated to the US in 1995; ten years later she moved to Chicago in 2005 and joined the Arab American Action Network. Odeh “has dedicated ten years to the Chicago Arab-American community, working with women on issues ranging from promoting literacy and political education to addressing domestic violence and anti-Arab and Muslim sentiment,” the organizations opposing the indictment have stated.
Earlier this year Odeh was awarded by the Chicago Cultural Alliance for her community leadership. In a video profile made of Odeh for the occasion, she describes how her family was turned upside down and dispersed during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and she discusses her current work with women immigrants to help them become part of American society.
Odeh’s arrest comes three years after the homes of activists in the Midwest were raided by the FBI and other federal agencies as part of an investigation into material support for foreign terrorist organizations.
Odeh’s colleague Hatem Abudayyeh, director of the Arab American Action Network and a good friend of this writer, was one of those targeted during the raids. He told me shortly after the raid that federal agents “basically grabbed everything that said ‘Palestine’ on it” during the three hours they searched his family’s home.
A total of twenty-three activists, including myself, were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in the months following the raids. (As The Electronic Intifada noted at the time, all indications are that I was targeted because of my involvement in solidarity organizing in Chicago, and not due to my work with this publication.) All of us refused to testify, even though we risked (and still risk) being jailed for doing so, stating that we were being harassed because of our organizing against unjust US foreign policy, particularly in Palestine and Colombia.
In a comprehensive article for Firedoglake, Kevin Gosztola has summarized the developments related to the grand jury investigation since 2010, which show that the government’s attempts to build a case have apparently not been successful so far.
The grand jury investigation is being led by Assistant US Attorney Barry Jonas, who was present in court on Tuesday when Odeh was brought before a judge, according to a statement released by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, which was formed after the 2010 raids.
Prosecutor targeted humanitarians
Jonas was lead prosecutor in the government’s case against the Holy Land Foundation, which was the largest Islamic charity in the US before it was shut down by a Bush administration executive order in December 2001. Five men associated with the charity were later charged with material support for terrorism organization over the foundation’s contributions to charitable societies in Palestine which the government said are affiliated with Hamas.
The prosecutors’ argument was that by contributing to these charities, the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) therefore freed up resources that might be allocated to Hamas’ “terror” activity. The government made this case even though the charities in question had also received funds from the US State Department’s aid agency.
The five were not accused of involvement in any acts of violence. Yet as Palestinian American Ghassan Elashi, one of the defendants, describes in Alia Malek’s book Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice:
At the trial, the prosecutors focused on the killing of Israeli soldiers and civilians by Palestinian elements, and especially Hamas, as opposed to the actions of the HLF or the defendants themselves.
One government witness testified in detail about suicide bombings claimed by Hamas, and prosecutors were also allowed to present to the jury numerous images and statements made by individuals other than us. For example, they showed pictures of the aftermath of suicide bombs, and videos of Palestinian school ceremonies in which children played the roles of suicide bombers, complete with suicide belts. none of the videos came from the HLF’s files. The videos depicted events that happened years after the HLF closed, and there is no evidence that the defendants attended these ceremonies.
Meanwhile, the judge did not allow the defense to “show the jury fundraising videos demonstrating the HLF’s charity work,” deeming the evidence irrelevant.
Despite these biased courtroom tactics, and the unprecedented expert testimony of an anonymous Israeli intelligence agent, the jury failed to return a guilty verdict. Jurors later told the press that the case seemed “strung together with macaroni noodles.”
But at the request of the prosecution, the judge then took the extraordinary step of individually polling each juror; a single juror had changed his mind and the judge declared a mistrial. A second jury trial returned in guilty verdicts and now Elashi and his co-defendants are serving what are essentially life sentences for their humanitarian work in Palestine.
The decades-long sentencing of the Holy Land Five for their work supporting charities in Palestine — charities which are needed as a result of the US-bankrolled Israeli military occupation — shows desperate lengths to which government prosecutors will go to score “victories” in the domestic war on terrorism.
This is enabled by the ever-widening scope of the controversial law banning material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations. The statute is now so broad that First Amendment-protected political speech can be construed as material support if the government says it is done in a “coordinated way” with a so-called terror group — even though speech is by definition immaterial.
Of course the application of this law is arbitrary. Not only have US political elites like former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani not faced any prison time for their services to the Iranian opposition group and designated terror organization MEK, the Obama administration announced a year ago that it had de-listed the group. As journalist Glenn Greenwald noted at the time, this was “despite … reports that the MEK had been engaged in terrorism and other military aggression against Iran — or, more accurate: likely because of them …”
The foreign terrorist organization list is itself inherently political. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the other Palestinian political movements on the list were designated by President Clinton as “terrorist organizations which threaten to disrupt the Middle East peace process” because of those groups’ opposition to the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993.
But not all groups whose activities contradict US foreign policy or disrupt the “peace process” have been criminalized.
US-based groups have raised hundreds of millions in aid for Israeli settlements, even though Jews-only colony expansion is still officially contrary to US foreign policy. Such groups even enjoy tax-exempt charity status.
Ensuring Israel’s impunity
Meanwhile, the US provides Israel diplomatic cover at the United Nations and other arenas, ensuring it total impunity — even when US citizens are its victims.
Recently-released documents show that the Obama administration actively undermined international investigation into Israeli forces’ slaying of nine activists on the Mavi Marmara aid ship in international waters.
The victims include teenager Furkan Doğan, a US citizen who was extrajudicially executed while he held a small camcorder documenting the siege of the ship. (The US has made no high-level attempt to retrive from Israel the camera and other property of US citizens seized in the raid which would yield key evidence.)
Meanwhile, the documents show, the US government wasted no time in investigating Gaza Freedom Flotilla activists for terror group financing ties.
It is hard to believe that this week’s arrest of a prominent organizer in Chicago, home to what is thought to be the largest Palestinian community in the US, over a conviction by a military court four decades ago, is just the federal government objectively upholding the law.
The repression of the Palestinian national movement in the US has gone back for decades, since the waves of immigration from Palestine following Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
And now that the status quo of US aid to Israel is being increasingly challenged, the repression has increased.
The statement signed by the dozens of organizations in support of Rasmea Odeh adds:
In the last year alone, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and in collaboration with the National Lawyers Guild and other organizations, has documented over 75 cases of intimidation and legal bullying. These include perceived surveillance, FBI contacts and discriminatory enforcement of laws against advocates for Palestinian rights. Rasmea’s arrest and indictment must be viewed within this wider context of widespread attempts to intimidate people into silence on one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time. Rasmea’s indictment is also an illustration of increasingly draconian enforcement of immigration laws, which have left immigrant communities devastated at the hands of Obama’s Department of Homeland Security.
For its part, National Students for Justice in Palestine has issued a statement in solidarity with Rasmea Odeh, adding that “we refuse to be deterred from our work.”
This weekend Students for Justice in Palestine is convening its largest national meeting yet. Despite all of the weapons in the US’ legal arsenal — for these laws exist to be wielded against us instead of to protect us — there is no stopping the momentum for freedom in Palestine.