Israel Report

December 2001         

The U.S. View of Hamas: Then and Now

By Jonathan Silverman - December 2001
An inside look at how America has dealt with the world's busiest terrorist group

On December 4, 2001, The New York Times reported that President Bush ordered the closing of the Holy Land Foundation. Based in Richardson Texas, until the government froze its assets, Holy Land boasted that it was the largest Islamic charity organization in the United States, raising some $13 million last year alone. But Holy Land's actual purpose was far from charitable. It served principally for channeling funds to the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. Far from being a charity, the president said, the Holy Land Foundation raised money to "indoctrinate children to grow up into suicide bombers," then supported the bombers' families after deadly suicide missions.

Treasury Secretary O'Neill who stood with the president when this dramatic announcement was made said the foundation "masquerades as a charity." In soliciting money from often well-meaning and unsuspecting donors, the foundation is operated by "scam artists who prey on their benevolence," the Secretary said. Two other financial groups which the government closed due to their ties with Hamas are Al Aqsa International Bank, based in Palestinian-controlled territory, and the Beit El-Mal Holdings Company, an investment group in the West Bank and Gaza.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who also appeared with the president, said the United States "will not be used as a staging ground for terrorist operations," and that people plotting Mideast terror would not be tolerated in America any more than the people who plotted attacks like those of Sept. 11.

The Holy Land Foundation denied that the charity is a front for Hamas or that the foundation has tried to help the militants by providing assistance to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. "Our foundation helps people in need," said Dalal Mohammed, a spokeswoman for the organization. "We don't do a test on whether families are in a criminal situation."

According to The New York Times, the decision to act against agencies in the United States and abroad that are seen as Hamas financial supporters reflects the administration's determination to take more than symbolic action to cut off funds for such groups. According to government documents, Washington has been investigating the Holy Land Foundation since 1996.

Israel, contending that the Holy Land foundation was a front for Hamas, closed it and four other charities in May 1997. Two years ago the family of an American killed in a terrorist attack in Israel filed a civil suit against Holy Land, seeking monetary damages in what the suit contended was the group's support of Hamas-inspired terrorism.

The United States began addressing the foundation's fund-raising in August 2000, when the State Department asked the Agency for International Development (A.I.D.) to withdraw its registration from the foundation, saying it had ties to Hamas. The registration made Holy Land eligible for relief goods through A.I.D.

Although Hamas is now on the State Department list of terrorist organizations, and the Bush administration is taking aggressive action against the organization in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the entire United States attitude toward Hamas was radically different a few years ago, oddly forgiving, despite the numerous terror attacks against Israelis for which it took responsibility.

Following the Hamas suicide bombing of bus #5 on Dizengoff St. in October, 1994, Nahum Barnea, one of Yediot Ahronot's leading analysts, stated an unusually bleak outlook on the event: "Rabin has no solution to the problem of Hamas. The army also has no solution. All of the grand acts of revenge being discussed -- mass expulsions, army action in Gaza, a massive operation in Lebanon -- were summarily rejected yesterday. They have no real benefit, except perhaps to satisfy a temporary craving in the public mind. That is the bitter truth. Rabin knew that already in London. He came back and heard it from his people...He knows there is no reply for the moment to Hamas terror..." (Yediot Ahronot. October 21, 1994. page 1, section b.)

Giving the accuracy of Barnea's outlook the benefit of the doubt, and barring an unmitigated Israeli military response to Hamas, the question begs to be asked: What was a proper political response to Hamas? What could be done through normal democractic political channels to apply pressure on the Hamas organization, and compel it to cease its policy of wanton murder and terror?

In Israel per se, normal political options for dealing with Hamas were -- and still are -- nonexistent. The Hamas charter, a thirty-page document published in August 1988, is a monument of unalloyed Islamic hostility towards the Jewish state; fanatically unbending in its aim of returning Palestine to its "rightful" status as an Islamic Waqf (religious trust), through violence. "The ownership of the land by its owners is only one of usufruct, and this Waqf will endure as long as Heaven and earth last. Any demarche in violation of this law of Islam, with regard to Palestine, is baseless and reflects on its perpetrators" (The Covenant of Hamas, Aug 1988, Article Eleven, page 7).

Whereas for years, voices on the left in Israeli politics called for dialogue with the PLO, no one in his right mind has ever made similar pleas where Hamas is concerned, then or now.

On account of the paradoxical obstacles that have always prevented unrestrained military or even modest political solutions to the Hamas problem in Israel, the situation logically required the organization and implementation of aggressive strategies on the part of Israel's supporters in America. Articulate leaders and spokesmen should have been rallying people to oppose Hamas and Islamic terror, as they once did against the PLO and Palestinian terror. Tough legislation prohibiting Hamas members from crossing U.S. borders to raise needed support here for their murderous aims should have been high on the agenda in Washington, as it once was in the days when the U.S. Congresss outlawed PLO members as terrorists. The bitter ideological conflict between Hamas and its charter based on total submission to Islamic "Sharia" vs. Israeli Western-style democracy should have created a storm of debate and controversy in the public arena. Arguments pro and con should have been circulating and creating controversy, as was the case when the spotlight was on the PLO and its oft-proclaimed objective of bringing about Israel's destruction.

One reason perhaps, is that Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin's circle of influence has always been confined strictly to Gaza and the West Bank, whereas Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, always fought to expand his circle and be recognized as a world figure in the fight for Palestinian rights. Arafat's wider recognition, alone, and the constant churning of the well-oiled PLO public relations and propaganda apparatus worldwide ensured that the controversy between Israel and the PLO would always have its day in the sun, practically every day. And when Palestinian terrorists took part in murderous operations like jet hijackings and so on, their aim in terms of riveting world public attention was achieved.

Widespread vocal reactions to PLO terror always followed every act of terror, and kept the air of controversy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict constantly stirring. Hamas, for its part, has no high key public profile whatsoever, no international press offices, no recognized figure (like Arafat) beating its drum in public. Hamas is known solely for its brutal and fanatic acts of violence against Israelis, and its adherence to extremist Islam.

Such a profile, married as it often is, to the boyish, even pious, faces of their 20 year-old suicide bombers, does not lend itself easily to debate or controversy. Moreover, the shock of the mass murders they commit is such that it even disperses bitter, hard core hatred from the average mind.

For the most part here in America, Jews and non-Jews alike generally don't want to know or focus too much on Hamas, precisely because people are terrorized by the vicious murders and suicide attacks which have become their stock in trade. The repeated acts of brutality have alienated people; made them uncomfortable with the idea of addressing Hamas with all seriousness in public.

Such was never the case with the PLO. The PLO and Arafat were always generously dished out as food for thought and open argument in their day. People always took sides in discussing the problem Arafat and the PLO represented. In the case of Hamas, and Islamic terror in general, however, until September 11, people averted their eyes. Even though in the case of Islamic terror, in 1990s America and also now, the only flag the Palestinian terrorists were waving is terror. Their objective has nothing to do with international diplomacy or anything of the sort. Hamas would not dream of obtaining United Nations Observer Status, for instance. Terror is their only stock in trade, not public relations. And the aim of terror per se is to silence people. In 1990s America, unfortunately, the Islamic terrorists were achieving that objective.


It is possible to date the start of this process with the murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990. The cell of Muslim fanatics from New Jersey who murdered him surely knew what they were doing. They wanted his views out of the picture, and assumed there was no one who would step into his shoes as an aggressive molder of public opinion against murderers of Jews.

Even now, more than a decade later, the Islamic extremists headed by Sheikh Abdel Rahman, seem to have called the shots correctly. No one in a position of authority in the Jewish world has emerged who takes rhetorical aim at Arab violence, with such deadly precision, as Rabbi Kahane did.

The ongoing threat of Hamas terror continues to touch every soul in Israel. Moreover, in terms of sheer terror, Hamas is surely as formidable an operator as the PLO was in its day, and deserving as much aggressive opposition among Israel supporters as was devoted against the PLO in its day. But despite the terrible cost in Jewish blood shed with impunity by Hamas in the last period -- scores of Israelis have been killed in Hamas suicide attacks since Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in September 1993 -- and the urgent need for some coordinated political effort to crush ongoing Hamas activities here in the U.S., there was no organizing of anti-Hamas protest demonstrations, no sharp polemical attacks, or any ratified legislation. In 1990s America the Hamas problem was met with practically nothing but silence and the most perplexing inertia.


There was actually one anti-Hamas assault on the legislative front; a bill (H.R. 1279) proposed by Florida Democrat Peter Deutsch in the House of Representatives in March 1993, just after the World Trade Center bombing.

In brief, the bill called for amending the Immigration and Nationality Act, by adding at the end of the section on terrorist activities the following language: "An alien who is a member, officer, official representative, or spokesperson of Hamas (commonly known as the Islamic Resistance Movement) is considered for purposes of this Act, to be engaged in terrorist activity."

Members of Hamas would thereby be ineligible to receive visas and excluded from admission to the U.S. In his testimony about the bill before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration and Refugees in February 1993, Deutsch stated among other things, that: "Beginning with the 1992 State Department report 'Patterns of Global Terrorism', the United States officially recognized Hamas as a terrorist organization. In addition, Iran who is cited in the same report as the 'world's principle sponsor of extremist Palestinian and Islamic groups, providing them with funds, weapons, and training,' is known to provide Hamas with anywhere between $15 - $20 million dollars per year. This is a large portion of the Hamas budget, the balance of which is raised abroad..."

In February, 1994 there was a subsequent hearing on Deutsch's important bill in the House Judiciary Subcommittee. A superficial item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), which appeared in a handful of local Jewish papers, was the only clue about the hearing the Jewish community received last year. So, it was more than likely that the vast majority of Jews in America never heard anything about Deutsch's proposed anti-Hamas bill, and had no information on which to base an opinion about it. The tiny JTA story also mentioned, in two words, that the State Dept. representative who testified about the bill expressed opposition to it.

In her full testimony, the State Dept. representative (Ms. Mary Ryan) about H.R. 1279, February 23, 1994, 10:00 AM, in the House Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration and Refugees, enumerated the reasons for the State Dept's opposition.

Firstly, Ms. Ryan pointed out that "Prior to the revision of the grounds of exclusion by the Immigration Act of 1990, mere membership in a terrorist organization did constitute a ground of exclusion under section 212(a)(28)(F) of the Act..." It would appear, therefore, that the tough U.S. laws barring members of terrorist organizations, like the PLO, had undergone fundamental alterations since 1990. Ms. Ryan went on to explain: "Beginning in 1977, with the enactment of the "McGovern Amendment", the Congress began a move away from exclusion by reason of mere membership or affiliation. In the early 1980s there arose much public and Congressional concern over, and criticism of, what were referred to as "ideological exclusions". After a number of years of intense scrutiny of the subject and anguished controversy, the Congress working with the Executive Branch revised the "ideological exclusion" grounds. The proponents of the revision were determined to eliminate from immigration law "excludabililty because of membership, affiliation statements or beliefs..."

So, in place of the blanket prohibition against membership in a terrorist organization, the new provision, as Ms. Ryan proceeded to elaborate, only covered aliens who have actually perpetrated terrorist acts or participated in them to some measure: "Section 212(a)(3)(B) provides for the exclusion of aliens who have engaged in terrorist acts in the past or intend to do so in the United States." As part of the effort to avoid exclusions because of memberships affiliations beliefs or statements, the proponents of change included definitions both of "terrorist act" and of "engaging in". These definitions may or may not be perfect, but they show a clear intent to apply the exclusion only to the actual perpetration of terrorist acts or to actions taken in furtherance of the perpetration of such acts.


Thus, the scene was set specifically for the State Dept. position on the new anti-Hamas bill, H.R. 1279 itself: "H.R. 1279 provides that "an alien who is a member, officer, official, representative or spokesperson of considered (for purposes of the terrorist exclusion) to be engaged in terrorist activity." It tracks the wording of the existing provision concerning the PLO, except that it also encompasses members. Consistent with the structure of the terrorist provision and the way in which the PLO provision is applied, the effect of this provision would be to make all aliens who are current members/officers representatives and spokespersons of Hamas excludable."

Surely, from the point of view of anyone who knows anything about Hamas violence against Jews, the aim of the bill, as described above by Ms. Ryan, was a desirable objective. In the year following the signing of the Oslo Accords in Washington D.C. (i.e. from September 1993 through September 1994) more Israelis, civilians and soldiers alike, fell victim to terrorist murder than in any previous year in Israeli history. Some sixty Israelis were murdered in the year following Oslo, and none other than Hamas was responsible for that horrid record of atrocities. Since September 1994, sadly, the toll only increased, and the hands of Hamas are even redder with Jewish blood. But, it would appear that the State Dept. was not swayed by such data:

"Hamas the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement devotes extensive human and financial resources to its widespread social and welfare programs. Hamas provides Palestinians in the occupied territories with economic assistance, health care, and education. Given this structure, we do not believe that every Hamas member can be reasonably presumed personally to have participated in or assisted in the commission of terrorist activities. Thus we oppose this provision as long as the word 'member' is included. We do not otherwise object to the provision however."

As shocking as the above State Dept. position on Hamas might be; it is perhaps even more shocking that at the time, and to this day, no one in a position of authority in the Jewish world made any attempt to correct the damaging impression conveyed by the State Dept's Ms. Ryan. Nobody raised a finger in opposition to the State Dept's sophistry, exonerating Hamas. Judging from Ms. Ryan's testimony, it would seem the State Dept. simply did not view Hamas as a band of Jew murdering terrorists. According to the State Dept. Hamas is really just involved in local charity and welfare programs, like UNRWA.


The riddle of silence in this case also extends back to Rep. Deutsch. At the end of October 1994, following the Hamas suicide bombing on Dizengoff St., it seemed that there could not be a more fruitful occasion to promote a tough anti-Hamas bill. Since people hated Hamas, surely, even more following the atrocity in Tel Aviv. So, voters would love (and vote for) a politician who vociferously supported a measure that would harm Hamas.

Jewsweek contacted Deutsch's office in Washington D.C. to appeal for Deutsch's being vociferous about his anti-Hamas bill in his ongoing campaign for re-election in Florida. The press secretary understood the request, but had a caveat. "We have a comfortable lead in the campaign", he said, "and don't want to rock the boat..." When asked how come there had been practically no publicity or public support for Rep. Deutsch's potentially valuable legislation, the press Secretary chuckled and said it was on account of the Subcommittee Chair, Mazzoli, who was from Kentucky, and was leaving the committee, so he didn't care what happened.

The press liaison did stress however that Rep. Deutsch "still believed it was a good idea."

He also advised getting in touch with the office of Rep. Bill McCollum, also of Florida. Rep. McCollum, he said, had a "Terrorism Caucus" that specialized in research and held seminars. The press secretary also suggested that McCollum's Chief of Staff, Vaughn Forest, could say where things stood vis-a-vis Deutsch's legislation and so on. There was no reply to Jewsweek's letter of inquiry.

The Congressional liasion to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) told Jewsweek that McCollum's "Terrorism Caucus" did do research and did hold seminars, but it wasn't a "real Caucus". Which is to say, it didn't propose or fight for legislation. It was McCollum's pet project, more or less, and had no teeth.

During the campaign, Deutsch never mentioned his courageous sponsorship of the anti-Hamas bill. There were never any further hearings on his bill. No one was interested in raising awareness about the bill anywhere in the community, and the bill just died.


The anti-Hamas legislative approach that seemed to be the objective of lobbying efforts in the mid-1990s relates to an adaptation of the well-known RICO (Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization) statutes into TICO (Terrorist Influenced Corrupt Organization) statutes. The passing of TICO laws would presumably have enabled the FBI to investigate Hamas front organizations (like the UASR "United Association for Studies and Research" in Springfield Va.) which masquerade under banal titles as charities and non-profits, and presumably charge them with criminal involvement and complicity in terrorism upon accumulation of evidence. But even that sort of legislation was never passed.

The fact is, even that experimental financial approach to legislating against the estimated 30 Islamic terrorist organizations whose offices are spread around the nation, was kept quiet. One Jewish leader in a position of high influence adamantly refused to disclose to Jewsweek the details of the legislative package on which he was working. He claimed he had made a "commitment" and was not at liberty to discuss the matter.

So, despite their continuing string of bloody atrocities, Hamas and the other Palestinian Terror groups successfully eluded becoming the focus of controversy or legislative opposition in 1990s America. There seemed to be nothing to catalyse intelligent arguments about them. There were no two sides (pro vs. con) that might make a public issue, or forum for debate. Average people and leadership types alike were reticent about knowing or saying or doing too much about this difficult problem. And so, in 1990s America nothing was done about Hamas.

It took an Islamic terror attack on the scale of September 11 to finally cause a shift in the deafening silence.

{ Jonathan Silverman is an investigative reporter for }


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