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Holy Land Family Fights Terrorist Label

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    Despite a hung jury, the trials are far from over Holy Land Family Fights Terrorist Label By Sarah Junek November 1, 2007
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 7, 2007
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      Despite a hung jury, the trials are far from over

      Holy Land Family Fights Terrorist Label
      By Sarah Junek
      November 1, 2007

      That Tuesday morning, Noor Elashi awoke to red and blue lights
      flashing through her bedroom curtains as FBI agents swarmed across the
      freshly cut lawn in front of her small Richardson house. In the early
      morning mist, the armed agents rushed to her door and began pounding.

      "They stood in front of my house as though it were a murder scene,"
      Noor wrote afterward in her journal.

      Her father, Ghassan Elashi, sat up in bed, dressed slowly and called
      his lawyer. Only then did he walk toward the pounding. Before he
      could turn the lock, three agents slammed through the door and grabbed

      Majida Elashi watched as her husband was taken away.

      "What gives them the right to shatter families?" she said.

      The same day, July 27, 2004, FBI agents, acting on a 42-count
      indictment, arrested the Holy Land Foundation president, Shukri Abu
      Baker; the director of the California office, Mohammad El-Mezain;
      fund-raising volunteer Mufid Abdulqader; and the director of the New
      Jersey office, Abdulraham Odeh. Two others, Haitham Maghawri and Akram
      Mishal, had fled the country.

      The indictment charged all seven with conspiracy to provide material
      support to a designated terrorist organization and money laundering.
      In addition, Baker and Elashi were charged with tax evasion. The
      government had already shut down Ghassan Elashi's business, Infocom,
      an Arab Web hosting company. In 2005 he was convicted in a Dallas
      federal court of providing funds to a designated terrorist
      organization and later sentenced to 80 months in prison.

      But the government would not be so fortunate with its case against the
      Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Islamic charity in the United
      States. The government's prosecutors lugged into court more than a
      dozen boxes stuffed with testimony, financial statements, wire-tapped
      phone transcripts and videos dug up in the backyard of someone who had
      no connection to the case. The government's evidence was intended to
      demonstrate "willful intent" to support Hamas through local charities
      in the West Bank and Gaza under the terrorist organization's control.
      The evidence included denunciations of Jews and Israel by some of the
      defendants—denunciations the defense didn't deny.

      In his opening statement to jurors, defense lawyer Greg Westfall said,
      "If it were a crime to want bad things to happen to Israel, we'd be
      dead in the water." But the Holy Land's defense team argued that the
      organizations within Palestine that received money were approved as
      legitimate by the United States and that no evidence was presented
      proving the foundation sent money to charities controlled by Hamas.
      After a three-month trial by ordeal that saw jurors so perplexed that
      one dozed off, another refused to cast any ballot and still another
      was sent home for reasons unknown, jurors in U.S. District Judge A.
      Joe Fish's court last week managed to agree on practically nothing.

      The jurors did acquit Mohammad El-Mezain on all but one charge of
      conspiracy. Otherwise the Holy Land trial ended in a hung jury on all
      remaining charges and frustration for both sides. It was a feeble
      whimper for a case that began three years before in a big bang of
      government publicity. The government, says prosecutor Jim Jacks, plans
      to retry the case.

      "It was a waste of time," juror William Neal complained to the waiting
      press. "The evidence had so many gaps."

      Even if the government eventually abandons its case against Ghassan
      and the Holy Land Foundation, the Elashi family has been so badly
      shattered by the ordeal that it will be difficult for them to pick up
      the pieces. Though Ghassan is the direct target, Noor feels the
      damning allegations against her father fell like radioactive waste on
      the entire family—allegations of recruiting children to become suicide
      bombers and inciting anti-Semitic children's skits encouraging people
      to kill Jews and other acts of violence.

      In their mostly Muslim neighborhood in Richardson, the Elashis are
      known as "the Holy Land family"—the one in the crosshairs of the
      government's war on terrorism. For years, Noor worried that her
      conversations were being wire-tapped by federal agents. Turns out they
      were. And on the same day FBI agents broke through the front door of
      the Elashi home to seize her father, Noor turned on the television to
      hear the highest Justice Department official in America label her
      family evildoers.

      U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft stood before television cameras to
      announce the indictment of her father and six principals of the
      Richardson-based foundation. The Holy Land Foundation, he said,
      "claims to do good works," but was, in fact, "funding works of evil."

      The government's accusations turned the Elashi family into a target
      for hate mail and Internet vitriol. Noor's inbox began filling up with
      bombshells such as this one: "You're pathetic liars, terrorist
      supporters and enablers. If you want to support Hamas, go live in the
      Arab world and stop abusing our free speech laws here in the U.S.
      Israel is the light of the Middle East and you stand for darkness.
      Curse you all.''

      Noor couldn't believe that the same government that had given her
      father's charity approval to provide millions of dollars in
      humanitarian aide to hospitals, schools and food missions in Palestine
      was now accusing him and his organization of committing heinous acts
      of violence against Jews.

      With her father behind bars in a federal prison in Seagoville, Noor's
      life turned upside down. As a general assignment reporter with the
      Fort Worth Star-Telegram, she used to call her father with questions
      on the road to her next story assignment. She used to beg him to make
      guacamole dip. She used to fight with her siblings in the evening
      after dinner for his ear. She relied on her dad like no other person.
      She decided to take a leave of absence to watch the trial and watch
      over her dad. Her only communication with him is through letters and
      two-hour weekly visits.

      "I've put my life on hold," Noor says.

      Recently, the family celebrated their first Ramadan without Ghassan.
      Noor's broad shoulders slump as she talks about her father. Two
      shelves stacked with her father's religious books and a tapestry
      embroidered with a verse from the Quran—"There is no god but God...He
      knows all things before and after, and nothing shall pass that is not
      His will"—serve as painful reminders of his absence. She feels like
      she's saying goodbye to pieces of her father with each passing day
      he's in prison. "It's not as bad as death or even divorce," she says,
      "but the day you realize your dad may not be at your own wedding is
      every girl's nightmare."

      At 21, she is the oldest of six children. Her deep, sea-green eyes
      give a doe-like expressiveness to her presence in the courtroom. She's
      kept watch over her dad every day of the trial and deliberations. She
      says her strength to carry on comes from her father's last words as he
      was taken away that Tuesday morning three years ago: "It's OK, hon.
      Keep your head up high because your father did nothing wrong."

      Now, morning, noon and night, her father sits in solitary confinement
      reading the Quran. During her visitations, Noor says her father seldom
      talks about his predicament. His mind is entirely preoccupied, she
      says, with his family's plight.

      On a sunny late afternoon inside the Elashi home in the middle of the
      trial, the washing machine spins clothes with a clank and the water
      runs over dishes stacked in the kitchen sink. Noor sits on the couch
      in jeans and a T-shirt, her shoulder-length chestnut hair let down and
      her iBook on her lap as she punches out the latest trial update before
      dinner. The reporter turned protector spends nearly two hours every
      evening editing a blog for families caught up in the web of the
      government's case against the Holy Land Foundation.

      Noor handles the stress differently from her sisters Huda, 18, and
      Asma, 16. She peeled off the bathroom wallpaper, launching a
      remodeling project to have fresh surroundings for when everything
      ends. But the task seemed overwhelming, and soon she abandoned the new
      apricot wallpaper. It lies on the floor, waiting for someone to
      install it—later.

      "I get frustrated really easily these days," she says, recalling a
      fight she had with her sister over a plate of brownies. Fasting for
      Ramadan, Huda was standing near Noor with the brownies she'd made.
      Noor just reached out and said, "I need one."

      Huda pulled the plate back, chiding, "No, you're gonna wait until
      everybody eats."

      Noor feels it has been worth it to be at home, focused on the case. On
      a Friday early in the trial, she drove Huda to a pharmacy technician
      exam and picked up her brother Mohammad from school for a doctor's
      appointment for his ankle, fractured in a skateboard accident.

      In the kitchen, Majida asks her middle son, Osama, 11, about his
      progress in school. He says he got a 70 in one class.

      "Oh my goodness, Osama! Never again, Habibi [my dear]," says Majida
      softly. "You better get hundreds all the way." She sits the oldest
      son, Mohammad, 12, down to do his Quran memorization and asks the
      other a long string of requests. "OK, my Osama, can you help me with
      the dishes? Can you take this with me to grandmother's? Did you make
      your prayers?" The youngest son, Omar, 7, has Down syndrome. Majida
      and Ghassan married and lived in Culver City, California, before
      moving the family to Richardson in 1992. Ghassan's mother, Fadwa, a
      Palestinian refugee from the city of Jaffa, lives next door. She and
      her oldest son have rented side-by-side three-bedroom duplexes. Most
      nights the family eats together in Fadwa's home.

      Over dinner, the conversation is in Arabic. A map of Palestine with
      the city of Jaffa and a gold key hang next to hand-stitched artwork,
      gifts from Palestine that remind her of a home demolished long ago.
      The smells of chicken and rice and vegetable soup hover over the table
      she used to share with her sons—all five of them now in prisons
      scattered around the country on charges of conspiracy to violate
      export regulations and money laundering in the Infocom case. Hazim
      Elashi was sentenced to 66 months with deportation after his sentence
      ends. Ihsan Elashi was sentenced to 72 months. The other brother Bayan
      was given 84 months while Ghassan and Basman were given 80-month

      Ghassan was 29 in 1982. He had been in the United States for four
      years, had earned a master's degree in accounting from the University
      of Miami and was making progress in a new country he planned to call
      home. Like many other Palestinian-Americans he was devastated when he
      watched television reports of massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee
      camps in Lebanon, where more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed
      during the Israeli invasion.

      Later, when Ghassan saw the bloody streets of Gaza City in 1987 during
      the first Intifada clash between Israelis and Palestinians, he felt he
      couldn't simply watch from his living room and do nothing. Though he
      became a citizen of the United States in 1989, his politics would
      forever be Palestinian first, then American. The year before he became
      a U.S. citizen, he incorporated the Holy Land Foundation in the state
      of California as a nonprofit under the name Occupied Land Fund. In
      1992, he moved it to Richardson and changed the charity's name to the
      Holy Land Foundation. Little did he realize that his charity would one
      day cost him his family.

      He volunteered hours at the Holy Land offices, often walking across
      the street from his Infocom business. As both his business and the
      foundation began to fall apart with each government raid, so did his
      family's sense of security. As their lives swept away, Ghassan watched
      the same emotional trauma he fled in Gaza reach back in to take hold
      of his family.

      Once Richardson residents, the Elashi brothers, their wives and
      children have spread out. Three wives did not have citizenship and
      were deported. The older children were left behind to finish school,
      and the younger were sent with their mothers to the United Arab
      Emirates, Jordan and Egypt.

      Noor's cousin, Rawan, 21, serves the first Friday Iftar meal of
      Ramadan one street over in her parentless home to what's left of the
      Elashi clan. She is taking care of her teenage brother, Yusuf, and
      sister, Hayat, now that her mom, Lima, is in Jordan, and her dad,
      Bayan, is in a Philadelphia prison. Rawan goes to school at UTD
      studying computer science. Noor suggests her cousin's story echoes the
      plight of Palestinian refugees. "You know you always look at it and
      think, 'It could be worse.'"

      Away from the family and alone in the Elashi kitchen, the oldest son,
      Mohammad, makes himself a Caesar salad and a sandwich and pulls out a
      mini shrimp cocktail from the fridge. He is ending the Ramadan fast
      alone because he's a picky eater and doesn't want to drag the food
      next door. He doesn't speak Arabic and is the only one of the six to
      go to public high school instead of the Brighter Horizons Academy,
      where his mom has taught Quran and Islamic studies for more than 14 years.

      The day after her husband was arrested, she was at the school and the
      kids gave her a $200 gift card. "I couldn't believe it and said they
      shouldn't have done anything. But the kids said, 'No Sister Majida,
      you've been teaching us for so long. We wanted to say thank you.'"

      Majida's job at the school brings in enough money for them to get by.
      But with six children to look after, a demanding teaching load and
      frequent appearances in the courtroom, Majida's easy-going life has
      been turned into a mad dash. In the courtroom one day after a
      mid-afternoon break, Majida looked down at her shoes. One was black,
      the other brown. She pulled Noor by the arm and laughed about the
      chaos of balancing a job and kids. "You'll see one day when you're
      married with kids. I'm so embarrassed."

      Noor plans to go back to work now that the trial has ended. Huda
      recently passed her pharmacy technician exam and is looking for work.
      Without Ghassan, the money is running low. One evening Huda, a student
      at UTD, arrived home late with a double espresso from Starbucks in
      hand and plopped in the chair with a distracted look. The issue of
      money comes up again, creating a temporary crisis. "Mom, I got a
      parking ticket." She needs $30 for the ticket plus another $100 to pay
      her parking permit at UTD for the year. Noor gave her money to buy the

      In a matter of days, Ghassan is expected to be relocated from the
      Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution to another federal prison
      in Atlanta. When that happens, weekly visitations will become
      impossible. That prospect leaves Majida and her children in tears. But
      Ghassan tells them not to worry; God will provide for them.

      "I go to keep him strong, and he ends up keeping me strong," Majida says.

      At 11 a.m. on a Sunday, a week before the verdict is announced, Noor,
      Asma and Omar enter the federal prison. Noor and Majida grab
      clipboards from the counter by the guard and take a seat. Omar
      explores the water fountain. He runs up to it to get a drink again and
      again, unaware of where they are and what they're doing but eager to
      experience everything around him. After Noor and her mother fill out a
      checklist of questions, they put their money in a plastic bag, hand in
      purses and cell phones, take off shoes and pass through metal
      detectors. Then a guard stamps their hands with an ultraviolet stamp
      and the sliding gray metal door opens into a small room. The doors
      slide shut behind the Elashis. They show the stamp to a guard sitting
      behind glass, and the second sliding door opens into a visitation room.

      The Elashi family enters, presents paperwork to the guard at the desk
      and takes seats in a row of plastic chairs to wait for Ghassan. After
      20 minutes, Omar finds the playroom past the four vending machines and
      starts toward a TV he hears. Another 20 minutes pass. At the sound of
      the inmate door sliding open, Noor cranes her neck to see if it's her
      father. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, Ghassan enters the room with
      his usual calm smile. He signs in with the guard, and the family
      gathers around with hugs and bursts of excitement.

      They have two hours of precious time. Everyone sits still as Majida
      gives him greetings from other family members that could not be there
      and tells him they are all praying. Others take turns spending time
      with him.

      "What do you do all day while we're waiting the last two weeks?" asks

      "Don't worry. I'm fine."

      "I wish you were waiting with us," Noor says.

      "I read in the room. I memorized 10 pages," he says.

      Memorizing the Quran is a form of worship for pious Muslims. Ghassan
      reminds his family regularly that they're not the only ones to suffer.

      "Mohammad is having difficulties in school," Majida says. Their oldest
      son and his brother Osama are fighting, she tells him.

      "As long as I am inside, my influence on him is going to be little,"
      Ghassan says. "I'll write and tell him this is an important time to be

      Mohammad has written his dad once but holds his feelings close.

      "Keep talking to him. Be patient."

      "OK," Majida replies.

      "Did Huda find a job?"


      "She will have a job. Don't worry. Let her know she will. Just be


      "She needs to have a job close to home. She doesn't need to drive a
      long distance."

      As time passes his thoughts nearly always return to the trial and how
      his family will hold up. He tries not to think about Atlanta or that
      this visit could be his last. He gives his wife one final word of
      assurance for when the verdict is read.

      "They presented the facts clearly," he tells her.

      "Don't be so optimistic," Majida says.

      The court is silent as the judge breaks the sealed envelope and reads
      the jury's verdict—or non-verdict. Most of the blanks have not been
      filled in, indicating jurors have been unable to reach a decision.

      Noor hears her dad's name and leans forward on the overcrowded hard
      wood bench.

      "Elashi—no entries."

      The verdict is out. Not bad, but not good.

      She exchanges smiles with her dad and then files out of the courtroom
      one last time.

      She rides the elevator to the first floor. The doors open to the
      clamor of media and more than 200 supporters. In front of the lights,
      cameras and microphones, her voice shakes.

      "My dad was singled out for feeding, clothing and educating the
      children of Palestine. Why? Because feeding Palestinian people has
      become a crime in this country."

      Other members of the local Muslim community read statements. "America
      wins when we choose fairness over fear, tolerance over prejudice,
      unity over division," one of them proclaims. The prosecution said that
      the Justice Department would retry the case on the charges that
      reached no verdict.

      They pour out into the mist and chilling winds and hoist their signs
      to passers-by. "Feeding children is not a crime," one reads. "Freedom
      from fear and justice for all," reads another. A few cars honk, and
      dispersing supporters shout their joy from open windows.

      The crowd lifts defendant Shukri Abu Baker into the air and begins to
      chant, "Allah-u-Akbar"—God is great.

      A few weeks ago, with the fate of the five defendants in the Holy Land
      case still in the hands of jurors, Muslim families flooded into Six
      Flags Over Texas amusement park for a day of pleasure and recreation.

      Noor wore a pink T-shirt from the Islamic Circle of North America,
      sponsor of the event. Earlier that day she had been to the prison in
      Seagoville to visit her dad. At the park, she enjoyed rides with her
      sisters, Huda and Asma, and cousin, Rawan. The young women blended
      into the sea of hijabs and covered heads inside the park where
      thousands of Muslim moms with strollers and dads in polo shirts with
      sons in soccer jerseys lined up for rides such as Batman and The Titan.

      Noor did not see the 10 protesters near the park entrance holding
      signs that read, "Holy Land Foundation Guilty" and "Six Flags Over

      They called themselves Americans Against Hate.

      Dressed in a dark suit and flag-patterned tie, Joe Kaufman, president
      of the Florida-based group, told the media he has devoted his life to
      fighting terrorism through his public awareness campaign on political
      Islam. Not all Muslims are terrorists, he admitted. But as long as
      they are going to an event supported by Islamic Circle of North
      America, he said, they are supporting a terrorist organization and are
      part of the problem. The ICNA was named an unindicted co-conspirator
      in the Holy Land case.

      "These groups do not care about our country. They do not care about
      diversity. Stand up for what's right and help protect America from her
      enemies that are within," Kaufman proclaimed.

      Dorrie O'Brien, a mother whose son has served as an engineer in Kuwait
      with the military during the Iraq War, told the small group of
      protesters, "The ICNA is putting on the event to show Muslims are just
      like us. But they aren't. They don't think like us."

      Later the next day, Noor read an article about the protest to her mother.

      "He should have called it Americans for hate," Majida said.

      Majida arrived in the United States some 20 years ago fleeing
      Palestine. One day soon after arriving, she was checking out at a
      Sam's Club when the checker told her she shouldn't be wearing her
      headscarf anymore. He laughed at her lack of conformity and assured
      her it wouldn't be long before she got rid of it.

      And just last week riding the DART rail from Richardson to Union
      Station, she was mistaken for a nun by a fellow rider. He had alcohol
      on his breath, and he asked her for some money. "I'm in worse shape
      than you," she said.

      Minutes later a woman sat next to her. "Aren't you hot in that thing?"
      the woman asked, referring to her Muslim head covering. You decide in
      your mind and in your heart what you are going to be, Majida said.

      Ignorance, Majida says, is what divides us. So does enmity, a subject
      that occupies Noor's dreams.

      A week before the jury ended its deliberations in deadlock, Noor
      dreamed she was in Wal-Mart and lost her temper. The manager came up
      to her shouting loudly and told her to get out of the store.

      "It was so out of nowhere," says Noor. "I just felt the pressure
      building up and I started yelling at the top of my lungs back at him,
      'You don't even know me. You have no right...'"

      In her dream she started to break down and cry and says at that point
      the manager threw something at her, hitting her in the chest. She
      spun around and saw a crowd of media staring at her from the other
      side of the glass. She turned to the media and said, "Did you guys see
      that? He just threw something at me."

      She woke up with tears, a sore chest and tense muscles and could not
      believe how real the nightmare seemed.



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