Ghassan Elashi, a Palestinian, has been in the U.S. for 23 years. A father of six and a devout Muslim who runs the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, he is also a proud U.S. citizen. But lately he has stopped jogging and lives in fear that his teenage daughter--who wears a hijab, a Muslim head covering--will be attacked on the streets of their hometown, Richardson, Texas, a Dallas suburb. Managing the nation's largest Muslim charity, he says, has become a "very, very dangerous" business.
It's the Holy Land Foundation that is truly dangerous, according to U.S. officials who last week charged that Elashi's charity helps finance the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. President Bush froze the group's $5 million in assets, and FBI agents hauled off records from its Richardson headquarters and offices in California, New Jersey and Illinois. The charity's money, said Bush, went to schools in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to "indoctrinate children to grow up into suicide bombers" and to support families of slain bombers.
FBI agents have been eavesdropping and gathering other intelligence on the group since at least 1993. The Treasury Department knew that Mousa Abu Marzook, a top Hamas official now in Syria, had contributed $210,000 to the foundation. At a California conference in 1994, Holy Land president Shukri Abu Baker was reportedly identified as a senior official of Hamas. According to an FBI memo, documents seized overseas showed that money moved from the Richardson office to Hamas-controlled committees in the Palestinian territories.
Yet no criminal charges were filed. A source involved in the FBI probe said the Clinton Administration seemed indifferent to the intelligence--and worried about going after a group with religious ties. "It's not like it was a big secret," the source said. "We knew there was a connection with Hamas." An official close to the current investigation claims the FBI forestalled an attempt five years ago to freeze the charity's funds for fear it would hamper a criminal case. But on Sept. 5, Treasury and FBI agents raided the Elashi family's computer firm in Richardson, InfoCom, and froze $56,000 in assets while subpoenaing records from company clients--including the Holy Land Foundation.
Last week Muslim groups rallied around the foundation, saying the decision to freeze donations was "particularly disturbing" to Muslims who entrust charities to fulfill their yearly requirement, called zakat, to give to the poor during the holy month of Ramadan. Since the Holy Land Foundation's inception in 1989, it has raised more than $50 million, with monies promised to children in the "holy land."
Elashi denies any connection to terrorism and disputes the impropriety of aiding the children of bombers. "When we give money to children, we don't discriminate based on their parents' behavior," he said. Perhaps, Elashi suggested, Bush should check that toys collected for Afghan children don't go to those with Taliban parents. Bush has no time for such analogies. Said he: "Those who do business with terror will do no business with the United States."
--By Cathy Booth Thomas. With reporting by Adam Zagorin/Washington