Role of pro-Israel groups in US terrorism laws exposed

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Students for Justice in Palestine co-hosted a march against the Israeli attack on Gaza at the University of California

Decades before the events of 9/11, Zionist organisations such as the Anti-Defamation League were advocating for counter-terrorism laws that specifically targeted Palestinians, unveils a recent study.

In the midst of protests on US campuses last October, opposing Israel’s military actions in Gaza, two leading pro-Israel entities contacted close to 200 college leaders. They pressed for investigations into whether students were breaching federal laws by disseminating pro-Hamas, anti-Israel content.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Centre for Human Rights Under Law raised concerns that Students for Justice in Palestine, the foremost campus group supporting Palestine in the US, might be infringing upon laws against offering ‘material support’ to terror organisations identified by the US.

This support could encompass financial aid or other forms of assistance. They stated: ‘We certainly cannot sit idly by as a student organisation provides vocal and potentially material support to Hamas, a designated foreign terrorist organisation.’

Despite these allegations, there’s no proof that SJP has ever supported Hamas materially. The correspondence was met with broad disapproval. The American Civil Liberties Union implored educational leaders to ‘reject baseless calls to investigate or punish student groups for exercising their free speech rights.’

The material support statute has become a cornerstone in the US’s war on terror prosecution efforts.

The ADL’s reference to this law marks a return to its origins, as the organisation played a pivotal role in its enactment three decades prior, aiming to weaken Palestinian support in the US.

A report released Wednesday details of how American terror legislation has long been influenced by an anti-Palestinian bias, promoted by pro-Israel groups.

Darryl Li, a University of Chicago anthropologist and legal scholar, and author of the study, remarked: ‘In the history of US terrorism law, Palestine is the elephant in the room.’

The report, a joint effort by the Centre for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, reviews half a century of legislative history.

It explores how critical moments in the Israel-Palestine conflict were seized by advocates in the US to broaden counter-terrorism laws and embed antidemocratic norms within various national statutes.

The study observes that foundational anti-terrorism laws were often introduced or modified during key junctures in the Palestinian liberation effort, frequently at the behest of groups aligned with Israel.

These organisations have consistently portrayed any support for Palestinian freedom as synonymous with terrorism.

‘The same Zionist organisations that pushed for expanded anti-terrorism laws — most notably the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — now brazenly target all advocacy of Palestinian liberation as support for terrorism,’ the document states.

Todd Gutnick, speaking for the ADL, contested this portrayal as ‘false and a complete distortion of our position’.

He clarified in an email that their advocacy was directed at various groups under scrutiny at the time, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and Hamas, not broadly against the Palestinian movement or its proponents, ‘unless those supporters were providing material support to a terrorist organisation in violation of federal law’.

Gutnick also refuted criticisms regarding the letter to campus authorities.

He affirmed: ‘We fully recognise and support students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, even odious speech, and have made that clear.

But at a time when some SJP leaders were echoing the position of Hamas so closely and with such intensity, and in a manner that was tinged with threats of violence, we strongly believe that an investigation is warranted.’

Emma Saltzberg, from the Diaspora Alliance, argued that the ADL’s insistence on terrorism inquiries contradicts its civil rights agenda.

She stated: ‘It’s an active attempt to deny Palestinian students and students who are in solidarity with them — many of whom are Jewish — their civil rights to free expression and free speech,’ and to wrongly label legitimate political activism as unacceptable, attaching severe consequences to such actions.

Saltzberg warned that advocating for such investigations could set a precedent for future oppressive measures.

According to the new analysis, US anti-terrorism measures post-9/11 have largely targeted Muslims, both internationally and domestically. However, initial US terrorism laws specifically pointed to Palestinians.

The term ‘terrorism’ first appeared in the 1969 Foreign Assistance Act, referencing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, now facing criticism amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

Congress mandated then that no funds should aid any refugee involved in military training with the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or engaged in terrorism, as stated in the report.

Leonard Farbstein, a key figure behind this provision, accused UN refugee camps of serving as terrorist training grounds.

This legislation established a long-standing practice of legally branding the Palestinian, particularly the refugee, as the stereotypical terrorist.

In the 1970s, laws were passed to limit aid to nations supporting the Palestinian resistance, driven by Zionist groups’ advocacy.

These efforts led to a 1979 law granting the secretary of state the power to label countries as ‘state sponsors of acts of international terrorism,’ a label frequently applied to Middle Eastern and North African nations, thereby excluding them from international aid and trade.

In 1987, amid the First Intifada, Congress uniquely branded the Palestine Liberation Organisation as a ‘terrorist organisation,’ aiming to expel it from the US and the UN headquarters in New York City.

Though this effort to oust the PLO was unsuccessful, it resulted in the creation of the State Department’s ‘foreign terrorist organisation’ list, prompting the inclusion of numerous pro-Palestinian groups within a year.

Subsequent laws incorporated ‘terrorism’ clauses in immigration and civil legislation, mainly targeting the Palestinian resistance.

The 1990 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act made ‘terrorism’ grounds for deportation and entry denial, explicitly mentioning the PLO. In 1992, following the murder of Leon Klinghoffer by the Palestine Liberation Front, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act, encouraging civil lawsuits against international terrorism.

The ADL was a prominent advocate for this law, which led to numerous lawsuits related to Palestine in its first decade.

The prohibition on material support to foreign terrorist groups has dominated federal terrorism prosecutions since 9/11.

Courts have broadly interpreted this law, hampering humanitarian efforts in places like Gaza, where the US deems certain groups as terrorists. This legislation, initially a domestic response to the Oklahoma City bombing, was significantly influenced by the ADL.

The bombing catalysed expansive counter-terrorism legislation, incorporating elements from the ADL’s agenda.

When the draft faced opposition over concerns of government overreach, the ADL spearheaded a campaign to sway legislators by highlighting the risk of Hamas fundraising in the US, ultimately reintroducing provisions targeting foreign groups.

The Oklahoma City incident led to a legal framework that has been used to prosecute numerous individuals since 9/11.

‘Responding to a deadly mass-casualty attack perpetrated by two white men with radically scaled up repression of Black, Brown, and Muslim communities is an all-too-American response,’ noted Li. He stressed the importance of understanding this history to prevent the current conflict in Gaza from leading to more severe laws.

Following the Hamas attacks, the Biden administration increased surveillance of Palestine supporters, and state governments used terrorism laws to suppress Israel’s critics. Federal proposals have included extreme measures such as expelling Palestinians from the US and investigating anti-semitism.

Li cautioned: ‘Since October 7, members of Congress have been trying to out-grandstand each other by proposing racist anti-Palestinian bills. While we must push back against the most outrageous initiatives, the proposals that seem innocuous may end up doing the most harm.’