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Money Freeze A Long Time Coming

With Internet appeals and buckets at ethnic markets and mosques, Holy Land Foundation says it has raised millions for Palestinian refugees — while denying accusations that it supported terrorists.

Court documents indicate the State Department began investigating the organization in the 1990s, but Holy Land kept operating until it was raided Tuesday by federal agents.

A published report Wednesday lists the FBI's involvement starting as early as 1993. Agents eavesdropped on private meetings between foundation officers and Hamas representatives and worked closely with Israeli investigators, according to an FBI memorandum obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

Investigators, according to the report, concluded that some key decision makers in the Palestinian foundation were Hamas members and the charity was the primary U.S. fund-raising organ for the terrorist group.

The memo detailed a series of 1993 sessions in Philadelphia — recorded by the FBI — in which Shukri Abu-Baker, foundation president and chief executive, along with Richardson-based InfoCom Corp. board chairman Ghassan Elashi and foundation executive director Haitham Maghawri met with Hamas activists.

The meeting's purpose was reportedly to discuss increasing funds for Hamas' holy war by giving money to the families of martyrs, prisoners, and the wounded. Most funds collected by the foundation supported Hamas activities, including schools, hospitals and annuities for the families of suicide bombers, according to analyses referred to in the memo.

Its findings that the foundation was linked to Hamas were also based on contributions made by a former U.S. resident who was the terrorist group's political leader in the 1990s and identification of Abu-Baker as a Hamas senior vice president.

Mousa Abu Marzouk, a Damascus-based Hamas spokesman, said Tuesday he personally donated money to the Holy Land Foundation, but that Hamas had never received support from it.

"These donations were before even Hamas started operating in the Palestinian territories," he said.

Tom Hamilton, a Dallas attorney for the foundation, said he had not seen the FBI memo.

Shortly after President Bush announced a government order Tuesday shutting down four Holy Land offices, about a dozen agents from the FBI and Treasury Department entered the organization's empty headquarters in a suburban Dallas commercial district. Federal agents also shut down Holy Land offices in Paterson, N.J.; Bridgeview, Ill.; and San Diego.

A few hours later, workers could be seen stacking boxes and hauling away furniture. A sign taped to the glass door proclaimed the group's innocence and lamented the raid during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally Holy Land's busiest fund-raising period. An American flag stood in the darkened foyer.

In announcing the raids, Bush said the militant Palestinian group Hamas uses money raised by Holy Land to indoctrinate children to become suicide bombers. Mst donors don't know how the money is used, Bush said, "but the facts are clear, the terrorists benefit from the Holy Land Foundation, and we're not going to allow it."

Abu-Baker called the seizure a political move to appease the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

"If the Holy Land Foundation had violated any U.S. law they would have charged us in a court of law. They wouldn't need to seize our assets," he said, vowing a court fight.

The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development raised $13 million last year and claims to be the largest Muslim charity in the United States. Founded in 1989 in California by Palestinian immigrants, its brochures describe an array of health, educational and social services it has provided in Gaza and the West Bank, Bosnia, Chechnya and other places.

Its Web site has frequently used strong language to condemn Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Israel barred Holy Land from operating within its borders in 1997 and contends that Islamic charities funnel money to the families of terrorists, making it easier for groups like Hamas to find suicide bombers.

In an interview last month, Abu-Baker said Holy Land doesn't single out families of suicide bombers for assistance but cannot help it if a handful — he estimated fewer than 10 — have received aid.

Abu-Baker said Holy Land's critics are racists who consider every Palestinian a potential terrorist, "even if they happen to be a 4-year-old child whose father decided to blow up himself."

"I'm now asked by these groups to punish the child for the crimes that his father has committed, and I'm asked to starve the widow whose husband decided to kill himself," he said.

In the early 1990s the group received about $200,000 from Marzouk, a former U.S. resident who moved to Jordan in 1991 and is now a Hamas political officer. His wife is a cousin of Elashi, who is also Holy Land chairman.

Abu-Baker said Marzouk was concerned about the plight of Palestinians but never expressed radical views and seemed an unlikely terrorist.

"He was an average person who would not impress you in any way," Abu-Baker said. "When he turned out to be a so-called chief of Hamas political wing, I said, 'Poor Hamas' ... I had no clue, and I think the government had no clue back in 1991, 1992."

In 1997, Israeli authorities raided a Holy Land office in Jerusalem and arrested the director, Mohammed Anati, who told police the group helped Hamas.

The Israeli Supreme Court said there was evidence Holy Land was funneling money to Hamas, but an Israeli military court said the amount was minor compared with overall aid to families. Anati recanted and was freed from jail after serving a few months on a reduced charge of working for an illegal organization.

On Sept. 5, a federal anti-terrorism task force raided an Internet services company that ran Holy Land's Web site. InfoCom Corp. said it sells computer systems and Internet services to Islamic organization in the United States and businesses in the Middle East.

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