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The Ongoing GOP Congressional Witch-Hunt Against Palestine's Human Rights Supporters

Republicans like Peter King are inviting neoconservatives to Congress to smear Muslim civil rights activists as secret terror conspirators.

Photo Credit: House of Representatives

Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) is helping initiate round two of the anti-Muslim tribunals he spearheaded years ago, this time inviting a neoconservative ideologue with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) to Washington to levy baseless smears against civil society organizations engaged in Palestine solidarity advocacy.

Like King’s 2011 to 2012 crusade against what he called Muslim radicalization in the United States, the new congressional hearings employ McCarthyist tactics to cast suspicion over Muslims without actually providing evidence of wrongdoing. Yet, unlike the earlier tribunals, which provoked widespread furor and protest, the new round aimed at Palestinian rights campaigners is largely flying under the radar.

The key target of the latest campaign is American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), which describes its mission as “educating people about Palestine, its rich cultural and historical heritage and about how the people of Palestine have been living under occupation for decades.” The U.S.-based group has collaborated with numerous human rights organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace and the National Lawyers Guild.

The primary “expert” behind the efforts to tarnish AMP is FDD’s vice president for research Jonathan Schanzer, who has been welcomed to Congress twice so far by King and other lawmakers to testify about “terror financing” and “threats to the homeland.” Schanzer is repeatedly presented as an impartial witness even though his think tank is aligned with the militarist GOP and Israel’s Likud government.

“Creating Untouchables”

During his most recent May 12 testimony to the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee as part of a panel of “witnesses,” Schanzer admitted that he "has not seen any evidence that AMP is engaged in any illicit activity.” This statement should have barred him from featuring the group in a talk on terror financing. But instead, Schanzer weaved a web of suspicion over the organization and its leadership, employing innuendo and guilt-by-association to imply collective wrongdoing.

Much of Schanzer’s argument rests on the alleged ties between AMP leaders and the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), which used to be the largest Muslim charitable organization in the United States before it was dubiously accused of terrorism by the George W. Bush administration. The charges against HLF are flimsy, resting on the claim that the group donated to zakat (charitable) committees based in the occupied West Bank and Gaza that were tied to Hamas. Yet, USAID, the United Nations and mainstream charitable organizations also donated to those same zakat committees. Nonetheless, five HLF leaders were hit with hefty prison terms in 2008, in an outcome that has been denounced as a travesty of justice by numerous civil liberties groups, from the Center for Constitutional Rights to the ACLU.

Schanzer also sought to tie numerous AMP leaders to the former Muslim charitable organization Kindhearts, noting that the U.S. treasuring froze the group's assets in 2006, “stating that the organization was the ‘progeny’ of HLF, and that it provided ‘support for terrorism behind the façade of charitable giving.’”

Yet, Linda Moreno, an internationally recognized attorney who represented Ghassan Elashi, the chairman of the board of HLF, told AlterNet that "it is intellectually dishonest to discuss only part of the litigation around KindHearts when, if you pick up the discussion right after Schanzer ends it in 2006, he fails to inform the audience that a federal judge granted the ACLU's request for an emergency order blocking the government from designating KindHearts as a [Specially Designated Global Terrorist] and in August 2009, the court ruled that the government couldn't freeze an organization’s assets without obtaining a warrant based upon probable cause. The court also held that the government violated KindHearts' right to due process by freezing its assets without providing it adequate notice of the basis for the freeze or a meaningful opportunity to defend itself."

In 2012, the ACLU announced that KindHearts won a settlement with the U.S. Treasury Department in which the government "agreed to remove it from a blacklist and let it distribute funds raised for humanitarian causes consistent with the intent of donors."

Nonetheless, Schanzer referenced AMP leaders' alleged ties to KindHearts, HLF and other organizations to argue that “we remain deeply concerned that individuals connected to entities that were previously implicated in terrorism finance can so easily regroup with such scant oversight.”

Schanzer named Hatem Bazian, a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley and current chairman of AMP, four times for his alleged “connections” to these Muslim charities. Yet, at no point did Schanzer offer evidence that Bazian has done anything wrong.

According to Bazian, in the current fear-mongering climate, Schanzer doesn’t have to prove anything. “Congressional committees are being used to create a cloud of suspicion and innuendo and create untouchables in civil society by creating this negative umbrella for individuals,” Bazian told AlterNet. “This is heavily rooted in the context of Islamophobia. Targeting Muslims is a strategy that is being deployed. And they are demonizing pro-Palestine activism by delegitimizing and targeting voices in order to silence them.”

At one point, Schanzer raised concerns about AMP national policy director Osama Abu Irshaid for recently announcing on Facebook “that he was taking a ‘surprise trip’ to Doha, Qatar. While there, [Abu Irshaid] met and even posted pictures with a man named Ayman Jarwan on Facebook” who was later accused of illegally sending funds to charities in Iraq. “The exact nature of this meeting between Jarwan and [Abu Irshaid] is unclear," Schanzer ominously stated.

What Schanzer did not mention is that Jarwan was charged with violating Iraq sanctions, not terrorist activity. Either way, the photograph shows no unlawful activity, yet Schanzer uses it to allude to a vague, foreign threat. As the shameful history of the congressional House Un-American Activities hearings shows, such trial-by-innuendo can have a devastating impact on people’s lives.

“He has one aim,” Abu Irshaid told AlterNet, “to try to criminalize solid and ethical legal work by utilizing the Islamophobic environment that we live in now.”

A Blacklist Campaign

Perhaps the most telling remarks came from King, who issued the opening statements for the May 12 hearing. Chair of the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee, King painted efforts to combat terror financing as vital to the struggle against “a wide range of terrorist organizations have sought to draw upon the wealth and resources of the United States to finance their organizations and activities.” In underscoring this urgency, he referenced ISIS and Hezbollah, as well as the September 11th attacks and the more recent and the more recent massacres in Paris and Brussels.

King’s remarks signal a strategy to crack down on civil society organizations by falsely implicating them in “terror financing” schemes tied to ISIS-style crimes against humanity. In lieu of actual evidence, the campaign aims to raise enough suspicion that organizations are considered tainted, blacklisted and subject to debilitating government crackdown.

King is not the only lawmaker abetting this campaign. In April, Schanzer was invited to deliver similar testimony by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.). Poe has railed against immigrants, falsely accused President Barack Obama of not being a U.S. citizen and even quoted Civil War Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, on the floor of the House. In his opening statements for the April hearing, Poe declared: “If we want peace for the United States and peace for our ally Israel we must make our message clear. If you help finance Hamas, there will be significant consequences and they will be unpleasant.”

Schanzer appears to be allying with these lawmakers in a campaign to delegitimize Palestine solidarity groups and blacklist individuals. In fact, he was open about this intent during his May 12 testimony, invoking the example of the British crackdown on Muslim charitable organizations as something the United States should consider. Last year, Britain’s community secretary Eric Pickles cut off state funding to the Muslim Charities Forum merely based on suspicions that it has links to what he called “individuals who fuel hatred, division and violence.”

In the U.S., the new campaign against AMP is abetted by an election cycle climate of incitement against Muslims, refugees and people of color. It also comes as participants in the global human rights movement for BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) face a significant escalation in repression—from U.S. legislative crackdowns to to a well-funded Israeli initiative to launch cyber-attacks on international activists.

King has already proven himself a dangerous force for bigotry, allying over the years with renowned anti-Muslim extremists like Steven Emerson, who recently emerged into the media spotlight when he made fallacious claims about Muslim no-go zones in Europe. As this latest blacklist effort goes largely unnoticed, King and his allies could do untold harm to people and civil society organizations, as well as to basic civil freedoms in the United States.

"In post-9/11 America, it's enough to just raise innuendo," said Moreno. "That's what makes this so dangerous."

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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