First defense witness testifies (September 4, 2007)

There were no mid-day snoozes on Tuesday, September 4, 2007 as jurors got a crash course on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and its heartrending impact on the Palestinian people. The jury frequently nodded and leaned forward to listen to the testimony of the first defense witness — former United States diplomat Edward Abington — who seemed to many as a walking history book on the Palestinian-Israeli saga.

Defense attorney Nancy Hollander, who represents defendant Shukri Abu-Baker, began direct examining Abington by asking him about his background. He speaks and reads Arabic and spent about 30 years as an American diplomat in several Middle Eastern cities, most notably Jerusalem. As a State Department official and a consul general in Jerusalem, he also encouraged negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli governments. He retired as a U.S. official in the late 1990s and spent several years at a consulting firm in Washington, which represented the Palestinian Authority. Never during his course of work did he have any contact with Hamas, he added.

Abington then referred to Israeli intelligence as unreliable. The Israelis have an agenda, he said. They provide selective information to influence U.S. thinking. He also discussed his visitation to more than a dozen zakat, or charity, committees in occupied Palestine. These included the committees that were listed on the indictment to which the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) gave money. He then reassured the jury that he never read State Department documents stating that any of the zakat committees were Hamas affiliated.

The Islamic University of Gaza and Al-Razi Hospital in Jenin are not part of Hamas either, Abington said. He testified that political or Hamas-related signs were not posted inside the Islamic University of Gaza. He also said Al-Razi Hospital is clean and orderly, unlike the Israeli-controlled hospitals for Palestinians in the occupied territories. In addition, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) provided a computer-training center in the Islamic University of Gaza and medical services to Al-Razi Hospital.

In his course of work, Abington also made frequent stops at Palestinian refugee camps, some of which were maintained by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. At first, Abington said, Palestinian refugees were housed in tents. But the camps eventually became small villages that include houses and shops. They also include schools, which have been closed for long periods of time by Israelis soldiers.

He then discussed in detail the 1993 Oslo Accord. He said the agreement did not involve the U.S. and was in fact developed in Norway between Palestinian and Israeli officials. He said the American government supported the accord, but Hamas strongly opposed it. Also against it were Palestinian Christian organizations and Israeli groups. He said Hamas did not believe in an Israeli state. But he also added that the Likud Party — co-founded by former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon — does not believe in a Palestinian state.

Abington said many other Israelis opposed the Oslo Accord because of the following reasons:
-They feared Oslo would lead to the dismantlement of Israeli settlements in West Bank and Gaza.
-They believed it would be against God’s word to give up land.
-They though Israel should maintain full control of the West Bank and Gaza.

He added that Judea and Samaria are biblical names that refer to the West Bank and Gaza. Until today, some Israeli officials use the term to identify the West Bank. He then discussed Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre, where a Jewish-American doctor opened fire inside the Ibrahimi mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron, killing 29 Palestinian worshipers and injuring others. He said Israel’s response to Goldstein’s shooting was to set a curfew on Palestinians. And on his grave was a memorial praising his killing of Muslim worshipers.

Abington then discussed the distasteful graffiti by Israelis. Hollander showed photos that displayed the following messages: “Arabs to the Gas Chambers” and “Kill All Arabs.” He added that, during his course of work, he saw other highly offensive graffiti about the Prophet Mohammad. He then talked about the Israeli excavation in Jerusalem, where Israelis dug a tunnel under the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1996 and declared it their holiest site. Abington added that Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, whom he dealt with regularly, shed tears after Israelis opposing the 1993 Oslo Accord assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Ishaq Rabin. The Israeli air force even flew Arafat to Tel Aviv to pay condolences to Rabin’s family.

The jury’s eyes grew larger as Abington told them about the 70 plus Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The fenced settlements are built on some of the best agricultural Palestinian land, he said. They also have bypass roads that connect to Israel made only for Israelis. Israeli soldiers differentiate Palestinians from Israelis by the color of their license plates — yellow for Israelis and blue for Palestinians. He also discussed the more than 500 Israeli checkpoints in and around the West Bank. Abington said all of this made it difficult for Palestinian merchants to “move goods from point A to point B” and has “severely damaged the Palestinian economy.” These blatant signs of occupation were also meant to “fragment and cut up the West Bank,” he said. In addition, Israeli law states that if Palestinian land is not farmed on for more than two years, the Israeli government has the authority to seize the land and build on it more settlements.

He then discussed Israeli house demolition, which is another devastating reality for Palestinian families. If family members are accused with terrorism, Israelis usually give those families — including children — 15 minutes to gather their belongings and exit the house before watching their home being bulldozed. The families of alleged terrorists are a minute percentage of the families whose homes are demolished. Other houses are destroyed because they were built without permits. But Abington explained that Israelis typically do not give Palestinians building permits — even if the land has been family-owned for generations. He said Palestinians whose homes are bulldozed under the Israeli occupation become destitute and in desperate need of charity. Abington described zakat committees in Palestine as organizations staffed by pious Muslims.

Many Palestinians — including Christian Palestinian spokeswoman and professor Hanan Ashrawi — opposed the Oslo Accord for numerous reasons. Its framework is too vague, it didn’t call for a Palestinian state and it wasn’t protective of Palestinian interests, Abington said. He then made it clear that posters and other Hamas-related items found in zakat committees should not conclude that these charities are Hamas-controlled.

The jurors were also astounded when Abington told them about the nearly 11,000 Palestinians currently being detained in Israeli jails. He said Israeli militants could arrest Palestinians and hold them for several months without charging them for the following reasons: throwing rocks during demonstrations, planning protests, allegedly being connected to terrorist acts and even carrying the Palestinian flag.

Abington then cleared up the true meaning of a martyr. Suicide bombers could be martyrs. But in Islam, martyrs could also be described as individuals who die on their way to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage, women who die giving birth at Israeli checkpoints and those killed by Israeli military action. He added that many Palestinians — such as Palestinian Authority and Fatah officials — were somehow related to Hamas members.

Hollander then listed the zakat committees in the incitement and asked the following questions for each committee: Did the State Department, Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. government agencies tell you that the zakat committee is part of Hamas? Did those agencies notify you that the zakat committee is operated on behalf of or under the control of Hamas? Abington’s response to both questions: No. Abington concluded by stating that charities are very necessary for Palestinian people to survive.

Prosecutor Barry Jonas began the cross-examination of Abington by asking him if former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright withdrew Abington from Jerusalem after making a negative public statement about the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Abington said that was not true. He also made clear that the Palestinian Authority paid his consulting firm an annual amount of about $750,000 — not the rumored $2 million. Jonas discussed the periodical clashes between Hamas and Fatah as well as Hamas’ non-recognition of the state of Israel.

Jonas also asked Abington if he was being paid for his testimony, which Abington was not. In addition, Abington said he had never heard of Hamas referred to as “the movement.” Jonas then asked Abington if he supports Hamas and suicide bombings, to which Abington answered No. Jonas then said the HLF was designated by the U.S. government as a Specially Designated Terrorist because it supported zakat committees identified as Hamas supporters. Jonas then played a clip showing interviews with some of the deportees who were arrested in 1993 by the Israeli government and dropped in the middle of a desert in southern Lebanon. Jonas concluded by identifying some of the deportees as Hamas members.

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