Mariam Mohammad Aljamal was one of thousands of Palestinians assisted by the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) during its years as the largest Islamic charity in the United States.
In 2001 Aljamal finished high school and hoped to study electrical engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG).
“I scored very high marks – 97.8 in the science track,” she recalled, speaking from her home in Gaza’s Nuseirat refugee camp. “But my family was going through very hard financial circumstances. Two of my sisters were already studying at the university at that time. Some of my family’s friends told us that the HLF gave scholarships to needy people.
“So I applied. They asked me to provide some documents and reports to prove my financial status and that I was a high school graduate. After a while, after I had begun studying at IUG, they called to tell me I had been selected for a scholarship. By then, I had already managed to gather the fees for the first semester myself, so they paid me the money back. In the second semester, I provided my schedule and they paid for it in advance.
“The HLF were very honest, transparent and direct. Once you gave them your schedule for the semester, they covered it immediately, unlike some other organizations.”
In December 2001 — after the Holy Land Foundation had forwarded Aljamal’s tuition for her second semester, but before it began — the Bush administration moved against the charity, freezing its assets and accusing it of raising funds for the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.
Then on 26 July 2004, a federal district court in Dallas indicted HLF officers and employees Ghassan Elashi, Shukri Abu-Baker, Mohammad el-Mezain, Mufid Abdulqader and Abdulrahman Odeh – called the Holy Land Five by supporters — for violating the United States’ law against providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations.
Prosecutors’ charges against them stemmed from the HLF’s donations to zakat committees in Palestine. These voluntary societies collect zakat, an annual contribution given by devout Muslims, then oversee its use for charitable purposes.
“Due to their being rooted in local communities, zakat institutions had excellent access to beneficiaries and knowledge about local needs,” a recent study commissioned by Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs said of the organizations in Palestine during this period. “They had a reputation for being on the whole effective and conscientious organizations with very low-overhead costs. Their autonomy and political independence allowed them to respond on the basis of needs alone,” according to the report.
“In sum, zakat institutions enjoyed a reputation for being honest, efficient, apolitical and non-discriminatory. Popular confidence in them was high. A number of polls ranked them among the most trusted of local institutions” (“Charity under threat? Zakat institutions in the occupied Palestinian territory,” Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, June 2012).
The case ended with a mistrial in October 2007, when prosecutors failed to achieve convictions on any of 197 counts. Jurors later told reporters that the case seemed “strung together with macaroni noodles. There was so little evidence,” and that they “kept expecting the government to come up with something, and it never did … The whole case was based on assumptions that were based on suspicions” (“Blocking faith, freezing charity,” American Civil Liberties Union, 16 June 2009).
But the defendants were convicted in November 2008, after a retrial “that, amongst other court precedents, relied on testimony from an anonymous Israeli intelligence agent.”
Other judicial irregularities alleged by the Muslim Legal Fund of America included “the court admitting unfairly prejudicial evidence with little or no relevance to the charges in the case” and “denying the defense access to evidence the prosecution had access to. Instead, prosecutors were allowed to cherry-pick what evidence the defense could review.”
The Holy Land Five received sentences ranging from 15 to 65 years. Bayan and Basman Elashi, tried and convicted separately on related charges, were sentenced to 84 months each, then deported in July this year to the Gaza Strip.
“Nothing was more satisfactory to me than granting scholarships to hundreds of Palestinian students who had high average grades despite the circumstances,” Ghassan Elashi, their brother and HLF chairman who is currently serving a 65-year prison seentence, said in his sentencing statement.
“We at the Holy Land Foundation were giving hope and providing the basic essentials of life to the Palestinians, basic essentials — oil, rice, flour. And what was the occupation giving them? The occupation was providing them with death and destruction. And then we are turned criminals. That is irony” (Sentencing statement, Free the Holy Land Five website).
“I feel sad for them, for those who were put in prison,” Aljamal, now 29 and the mother of two young children, said. “This foundation supported students, needy students. It had nothing to do with politics.”
After the US government closed the HLF, Aljamal was able to continue her studies in electrical engineering by pooling university loans with contributions from her extended family. But other students were not as fortunate.
“I know many students who had to change their majors because of the HLF’s closure, when they couldn’t use the scholarships they had received,” she said. “For example, engineering is more expensive, and many students changed to other majors that were cheaper. Sometimes scholarships were available for students in specific majors, like religion, if their high school marks were high in that subject. But I didn’t want to change my major, and was able to carry on.”
Following a circuit court’s denial of the Holy Land Five’s appeal in December 2011, only a final appeal to the Supreme Court remains.
On Thursday, shortly before the court decides whether to even hear the case, family and supporters of the Holy Land Five will hold protests across the United States, organized by the Committee to Stop FBI Repression and Ghassan Elashi’s daughter Noor Elashi, calling for their release.
Mariam Aljamal says she hopes for the protesters’ success, and also that the case does not suppress international solidarity with her homeland.
The need for charity has become more acute in Gaza since Israel imposed its siege. Gaza’s unemployment rate stands at 34 percent and a third of its children live in poverty. Even modest university fees pose insurmountable challenges for many families.
“There are still many families in the Gaza Strip whose sons and daughters are good at school, but who don’t have the money to support their university studies financially,” Aljamal said. “I hope the closure of the HLF will not end support for Palestine.”
Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He works with the Centre for Political and Development Studies and other Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks, particularly in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions and prisoners’ movements. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter @jncatron.