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After Israel’s Designation of Human Rights Groups as “Terrorists,” Biden Should Release Palestinian-Americans Imprisoned Over Similar Claims

Joint Statement by US and International Civil and Human Rights Organizations and Individuals

We, the undersigned U.S. and international civil and human rights organizations and individuals, call on the Biden Administration to pardon the “Holy Land Foundation Five.” Shukri Abu-Baker, Ghassan Elashi, Mufid Abdulqader, Abdulrahman Odeh, and Mohammad Elmezain are prominent Palestinian-American philanthropists who once ran the largest Muslim charity in the United States. The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development was shut down by the Bush administration and designated as a terrorist organization in the wake of 9/11, even though it donated money to Palestinian charities that the U.S. government itself supported. Its leaders are serving sentences of up to 65 years in federal prison.[1]

The defendants in the Holy Land Foundation (HLF) case were never accused of directly funding terrorist organizations or terrorist attacks, nor were the Palestinian charities they funded accused of doing so. Nonetheless, they were prosecuted under US “material support” legislation on the notion that the social programs they financed help win the “hearts and minds” of Palestinian people for Hamas.[2]

The U.S. government's case was based in part on evidence obtained through FISA wiretaps as well as evidence obtained via questionable foreign intelligence from Israel, faulty translations, and accusations by anonymous Israeli military witnesses who claimed that charities receiving funding from the HLF – and from the U.S. government itself – were involved in “terrorism.”[3]

These dubious claims echo those that the Israeli government has made against Palestinian human rights groups and advocates for decades, including this past October when it designated as “terrorist” six Palestinian human rights organizations that have worked closely with the international community, triggering widespread international condemnation.[4] The six groups have offices in the West Bank, where they have spent years documenting and exposing violence by the Israeli military as well as Palestinian authorities, including the detention and torture of children, and advocating for the rule of law.[5]

In its released dossier, the Israeli government employed a similar rationale against these groups to what was used in the prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation Five. It claimed that while some of these organizations have humanitarian goals, some of their funds had gone to “terrorist organizations.” Yet it put forward no proof to justify these allegations and no meaningful substantiation linking them to armed violence.[6] According to the targeted groups’ attorneys, the information it offered about the groups was at least in part obtained through the use of abusive interrogation tactics.[7] Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, which the Biden Administration recently added to its trade restriction list, was also found on some of the phones of Palestinian activists from the six groups.[8] NSO Group did not directly respond to these allegations.9

In its prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation Five, the U.S. government similarly relied on prejudicial and vague claims made by an Israeli intelligence officer, who was permitted to testify under a false name that he could “smell Hamas.”[9] This may be the first time that an expert witness was allowed to testify under a pseudonym in an American courtroom.[10] And despite the government’s acknowledgment that the funds sent went entirely for humanitarian aid to needy Palestinians, the five men were still convicted.[11]

Israel’s recent decision to designate the six Palestinian human rights organizations "terrorist" has been condemned by multiple members of Congress;[12] prominent international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch;[13] the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Association;[14] the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the EU Special Representative for Human Rights;[15] the Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs;[16] the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs;[17] at least 21 Israeli human rights groups;[18] and numerous philanthropic organizations and public figures.[19]

But today, U.S. citizens of Palestinian heritage languish in prison because Bush-era prosecutors decided —in part using Israeli government claims and even anonymous Israeli government witnesses—that their charitable activities were "terrorism".

The HLF prosecution was clouded by the fear and suspicion of Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But the Israeli military's decision to outlaw Palestinian human rights groups as "terrorists" indicates that, then and now, these are politically-motivated accusations and U.S. citizens do not belong in prison as a result. President Biden should pardon the Holy Land Five.

For the full list of signatories, please click here


[1] For an extensive summary of the Holy Land Foundation’s activities and the repressive campaign to seize its funds and jail its directors, see Bridge Initiative Team, Factsheet: Holy Land Foundation, January 27, 2020, available at See also Nancy Hollander, The Holy Land Foundation Case: The Collapse of American Justice, 20 WASH. & LEE J. CIV. RTS. & SOC. JUST. 45 (2013); and ACLU, Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity: Chilling Muslim Charitable Giving in the ‘War on Terrorism Financing’ (June 2009); and Miko Peled, Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five (Feb. 2018); and Emily Ratner, Anonymous Accusers in the Holy Land: Subverting the Right of Confrontation in the United States’ Largest Terrorism-Financing Trial, 13 Loy. J. Pub. Int. L. 575 (2012), available at            

[2] See ACLU, supra note 1. See also Human Rights Watch, Illusions of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions (2014), 60-74.

[3] Bridge Initiative Team, supra note 1.

[4] Associated Press, Israel designates 6 Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations, NPR, October 23, 2021, available at See also Diala Shamas, The Downstream Effects of Israel’s “Terrorist” Designation on Human Rights Defenders in the US, JustSecurity, November 4, 2021, available at; Eliav Lieblich and Adam Shinar, Counterterrorism Off the Rails: Israel’s Declaration of Palestinian Human Rights Groups as “Terrorist” Organizations JustSecurity, October 24, 202 available at  

[6] Yuval Abraham, Oren Ziv, and Meron Rapoport, “Secret Israeli Document Offers No Proof to Justify Terror Label for Palestinian Groups,” The Intercept, November 3, 2021; and Philip Weiss, “Israel’s secret ‘evidence’ against rights groups is based on torture and lies, and Europeans rejected it — Palestinian leaders tell a DC audience,” MondoWeiss November. 2, 2021, available at

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Front Line Defenders, “OPT/Israel Six Palestinian Human Rights defenders hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus Software,” November 8, 2021 available at; Amnesty International, “Devices of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders Hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus Software” November 8, 2021, available at;  Human Rights Watch, “Spyware Used to Hack Palestinian Rights Defenders: Groups Condemn Use of NSO Group’s Pegasus Against Palestinians,” November 8, 2021.   

[9] Frank Bajak and Joseph Krauss, “Report: NSO spyware found on 6 Palestinian activists’ phones,” Associated Press, November 8, 2021. 

[10] Hollander, supra note 1 at 56 and Peled, supra note 1.

[11] Ratner, supra note 1.

[12] Letter from James P. McGovern, Member of Congress, to Anthony J. Blinken, Secretary of State, November 9, 2021, available at; and Condemning the repressive designation by the Government of Israel of six prominent Palestinian human rights and civil society groups as terrorist organizations, and for other purposes, H.R. 751, 117th Cong. (2021) (Bill introduced by Betty McCollum, D-MN condemning the designation, co-sponsored by representatives Cori Bush, D-MO, Jesus G. Chuy Garcia, D-IL, Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, Ayanna Pressley, D-MA, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, Marie Newman, D-IL, Ilhan Omar, D-MN, Andre Carson, D-IN, Raul M. Grijalva, D-AZ, and Rashida Tlaib, D-MI).

[13] Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, “Israel/OPT: Designation of Palestinian civil society groups as terrorists a brazen attack on human rights” October 22, 2021 available at and    

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, “UN Experts condemn Israel’s designation of Palestinian human rights defenders as terrorist organizations,” October 25, 2021, available at; Clement Voule, UN Special Rapporteur Freedom of Association, via Twitter, October 24, 2021, available at

[15] High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union, Palestine: High Representative / Vice President Josep Borrell met with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, October 27, 2021, available at; and Eamon Gilmore, EU Special Representative for Human Rights, via Twitter October 5, 2021, available at     

[16] Department of Foreign Affairs, “Statement by Minister Coveney on the designation of Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations,” October 27, 2021, available at

[17] Consulat General de France a Jerusalem, “ONG palestiniennes, – extrait du point de presse,” October 26, 2021 available at    

[18] Various, “Joint Statement: Draconian measure against human rights,” October 25, 2021, available at

[19] Funders 4 Palestine, “Philanthropy Open Letter to Defend Democracy and the Rights of Palestinian Civil Society,” November 16, 2021, available at; and DiEM25 Communications, More Than 100 Actors, Musicians, and Authors sign statement against Israel’s attack on Palestinian organizations November 17, 2021.

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