Criminalising Palestinian solidarity

Campaigning against Israeli apartheid has resulted in 23 Palestinian solidarity activists facing US federal grand jury.

US pro- Palestinian
Palestinian solidarity activists making their voices heard are alleged to be supporting ‘terrorism’, as if an entire nation of people can be generalised as criminals [GALLO/GETTY]

The United States government has criminalised the Palestinian people, and now it is increasingly treating US citizens who stand in solidarity with Palestine as criminals as well – including those courageously putting their lives on the line to break the siege on Gaza.

I am a Palestine solidarity activist in the US, and one of 23 US citizens who have been issued with a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury as part of what the government has said is an investigation into violations of the laws banning material support to foreign “terrorist organisations”.

None of us have given money or weapons to any group on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organisation list. But what many of us have done is participate in or help organise educational trips to meet with Palestinians and Colombians resisting the US-funded military regimes they live under.

The goal of these trips is to learn about the human rights violations happening in these places and to bring those stories back home to the US, to educate people and to organise to change US foreign policy for the better.

Warranting an investigation

Travel for such purposes should be protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. But a year ago the US Supreme Court decided in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project to dramatically expand the government’s definition of what constitutes material support for a foreign terrorist organisation.

Now the government considers travel to places like the West Bank and Colombia to be a predicate or justification for opening up an investigation and issuing search warrants to raid activists’ homes and seize their belongings. Political speech if made in a “coordinated way” can be construed as material support.

Travel to Colombia was the initial pretext for the investigation into the 23 of us, but it expanded to travel to Palestine. This was confirmed with the recent discovery of files accidentally left behind by the FBI in one of the homes raided last September.

The file includes dozens of questions that the FBI wanted to pose to activists – many of them focused on travel to Palestine and Colombia, two asking activists to name every person they know who has ever travelled to the Middle East or South America.

Civil liberties groups including the Center for Constitutional Rights have decried Holder v. HLP because it imposes guilt on people by association and criminalises “activities like distribution of literature, engaging in political advocacy, participating in peace conferences, training in human rights advocacy, and donating cash and humanitarian assistance, even when this type of support is intended only to promote lawful and non-violent activities”.

The investigation into the 23 of us is viewed by many as a test case for Holder vs. HLP. Conviction of a violation of the material support laws means a prison sentence of up to 15 years – and what happens with our case will set a precedent for many social justice movements in the US. But it will particularly – and perhaps more immediately – impact Palestine solidarity activists who campaign to end US aid to Israel and in support of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Palestine solidarity movement in the US at risk

The Palestine Solidarity Movement has gained significant ground in the US in the past few years. Consciousness of the oppressive nature of the Israeli apartheid regime has been raised in the wake of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon – when the phrase “Dahiyeh doctrine” was coined to describe Israel’s wholesale destruction of civilian infrastructure. The winter 2008-09 invasion and air attacks on the trapped civilian population in the Gaza Strip further exposed Israel’s cruelty, and the execution of nine humanitarians aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla last year showed that Israel knows no bounds – and that the impunity it enjoys needs to end before the next massacre is perpetrated.

Activists in the US play a key role in efforts to bring Israel’s war crimes and occupation to an end, as the US government bankrolls the Israeli military with our tax dollars, and shields Israel from accountability through diplomatic bullying and the veto at the UN Security Council.

For these reasons, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in the US, while still young, is especially significant. The movement is rooted in a rights-based approach and aims to compel Israel to respect international law.

Such efforts to hold Israel to account are viewed as enough of a threat that the US State Department this month reiterated its commitment to “counter head-on efforts of de-legitimisation” regarding Israel.

“Our diplomatic engagement with Israel in multilateral affairs is rooted in a core commitment by President Obama,” the State Department’s Esther Brimmer told Zionist thinktank Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

“President Obama and this administration have worked tirelessly, in both word and deed, across the UN system, to ensure that Israel’s legitimacy is beyond dispute and that Israel has the opportunity to contribute fully to all institutions to which it belongs,” she added.

Siege-breaking activists may be next

It is US policy to block Palestinians from all avenues to justice at the UN level, by foiling the Goldstone report on war crimes in the Gaza Strip or preventing any censure of Israel for last year’s massacre of flotilla activists. But this week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has given Israel the green light to attack the second Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

The State Department also issued a statement on the second flotilla– which will include approximately fifty Americans – in which it warned that “delivering or attempting or conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to, or for the benefit of, a designated foreign terrorist organisation, such as Hamas, could violate US civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration”.

Hamas, which is the ruling party in the Gaza Strip and which won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006, is on the US State Department’s unilateral foreign terrorist organisation list – along with every other major Palestinian political party besides Fatah (though its armed wing is on the list). This means that the US has essentially criminalised the entire Palestinian people and the parties which represent them – except for those that collude with the Israeli occupation.

The State Department’s foreign terrorist organisation list is a politically motivated register, not reviewed by any court, and inclusive of pretty much every liberation movement resisting regimes bankrolled and supported by the United States.

Prosecution for violations of the material support law is also blatantly political. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey (John Ashcroft’s successor), former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a former homeland security secretary and national security advisor are (as far as I know) not being investigated for material support for foreign terrorist organisations after they spoke in support of an Iranian opposition group on the state department’s list at a conference organised by the group last year.

Obama on the wrong side of history

It is also not lost on any of the 23 of us whose freedom is on the line that, had this material support statute been in place when President Obama was an anti-apartheid campus divestment activist, he too would have been vulnerable to prosecution.

At the height of the South Africa anti-apartheid movement, the US State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organisation the African National Congress – the party led by Nelson Mandela (he founded its armed wing) and which guided the solidarity movement in the US. Mandela was only removed from US “terrorism watch list” in 2008, aged 89.

Now that the international movement to bring apartheid in Palestine to an end has claimed more and more victories, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated. Just as the US was amongst the last to support apartheid in South Africa, it will be among the last to support apartheid in Palestine up to the bitter end – and those who oppose it will face an increasing backlash.

While President Obama, who wrote the introduction to Mandela’s most recent autobiography, was on the right side of history when it came to apartheid in South Africa, he is on the wrong side of today’s anti-apartheid struggle. Furthermore, US citizens who have dedicated their lives to fighting for what is right are being criminalised on his watch.

Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and a Palestine solidarity activist based in Chicago.

You can follow her on Twitter: @Maureen_70

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.