Israeli Defense Forces commander testifies (August 9, 2007)

The courtroom was empty and all wooden doors were locked on Thursday, August 9, 2007 as the government interrupted the cross-examination of FBI agent Laura Burns for the testimony of an official with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The witness — who used the fake name of Leo for security reasons — entered and exited the courtroom through the back doors. Several police cars surrounded the courthouse. No one except immediate family members of the defendants were allowed in, although several federal agents were also present. The media and the rest of the public had to hear the testimony from another courtroom on the 16th floor, where the camera was turned off and only the audio was on. The jurors, who listened closely as the translator interpreted the testimony in Hebrew, seemed well aware that this witness was different.

Leo didn’t come alone. Along with him were a few consultants, two translators and what looked like at least one bodyguard. As unfocused prosecutor Elisabeth Shapiro began direct examining him, Leo slowly smirked as he answered the questions. He began by discussing his responsibilities in the intelligence sector of the IDF. I train Israeli soldiers to gather information and go over specific documents. Then I use the data that they come with, he said in Hebrew through a translator.

As part of Israel’s security plan, Leo commands “military operations,” where his soldiers raid buildings without court-issued search warrants. Some of these buildings include Palestinian Zakat (charity) Committees, which are entities that the U.S. government alleges to be somehow linked to Hamas. The U.S. government accused the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) of sending money to some of the Zakat Committees that were raided by Leo’s forces.

After Leo’s soldiers gathered the documents, they put them in boxes, organized them according to date, time and location, entered them into a computer database and eventually transferred them to an Israeli army base. A security unit in Israel is the only entity that has the right to take the documents away from us and we get to keep copies of them. Then officials with this security unit get to decide who can access the records, Leo said. Officials with the U.S. government were among the individuals who were able to access the original records seized from the Zakat Committees.

The documents seized from Leo’s soldiers included posters, brochures, pamphlets, pictures, key chains, calendars, videotapes and even a child’s hand painting. Armed soldiers seized the items from various locations including the Nablus Zakat Committee, Jenin Zakat Committee and even an orphanage in the Palestinian village of Hebron.

Linda Moreno, defendant Ghassan Elashi’s attorney, then began cross-examining Leo by asking if he or his soldiers speak Arabic. Leo said his soldiers all speak Arabic and he speaks the Moroccan version of Arabic. Moreno then made clear that the Israeli military — not the court — ordered Leo’s team to undergo the military operations.

Moreno then asked Leo if his soldiers made any videos of the seizures. At first, Leo said he was not aware. Then he answered no. And with a little more effort, he said: Yes, in some cases.

Proving that much of the documents were hearsay, Moreno asked Leo if he personally participated in the seizure of any of the documents used for the HLF trial. His reply: No. He couldn’t even recall whether his soldiers seized all or some of the documents from the Zakat Committees.

Moreno then made it clear that all of the raids of Leo’s soldiers took place between 2002 and 2004. These were documents obtained long after the U.S. government shut down the HLF in 2001.

She concluded by asking Leo if the West Bank is being militarily occupied by the Israeli government. It’s not up to me to identify what is occupied and what is not, Leo said. So Moreno asked him this: Can Palestinians move freely in and out of the West Bank? He attempted to reply, but was interrupted by Shapiro’s objection on the grounds that it’s irrelevant. The judge sustained the government’s objection.

After lunch, Moreno continued the direct examination of Leo. She asked if his forces seized books on the Palestinian struggle. No, he replied. He said he did, however, seize student report cards and birth certificates. She then asked if there were children living in the orphanage when Israeli soldiers raided it. Shapiro objected to the question and the judge sustained her objection.

Nancy Hollander, defendant Shukri Abu Baker’s lawyer, and Marlo Cadeddu, defendant Mufid Abdulqader’s lawyer, very briefly cross-examined Leo too.

Hollander then continued the cross-examination of FBI agent Laura Burns. Hollander began by asking Burns to read aloud a document written by Shukri Abu Baker about his 1991 visit to occupied Palestine. She then made it clear that the HLF did not only advertise for the Islamic Association for Palestine. The HLF also advertised with various newspapers.

Hollander then displayed documents about former Hamas leader Jamil Hamami, an individual who the U.S. government alleges had strong connections with the HLF. Hollander displayed a letter of invitation that the United States sent to Hamami in October 1998. Government officials not only invited Hamami to come and speak about Islam in the program titled “Role of Religion in America.” The U.S. government also covered Hamami’s plane ticket and hotel costs of the three-week trip that began in February 1999. During his visit in the United States, he traveled to several cities including Los Angeles and New York City. Hollander then asked Burns to read a letter by U.S. government officials thanking Hamami and describing him as a “distinguished gentleman.”

The next topic during Burns’ cross-examination was HLF’s contributions to the relief fund of Oklahoma City Bombing. Hollander made it clear that many individuals from the HLF donated blood to the bombing victims though the Dallas-based BloodCare. Hollander then asked Burns to read aloud a letter sent to the HLF by Oklahoma city officials that read: I thank you for your heart felt compassion during this time.

The defense team did a magnificent job of exposing the truth. Let’s pray that this exposure will remain with the jury until they deliberate.

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