Charity trial witness falters
An Israeli intelligence agent whose earlier testimony linked a U.S.-based Islamic charity to Hamas acknowledged Thursday that none of the overseas charities it supported has appeared among hundreds of names on U.S. government terrorist lists.
The testimony seemed to cast doubt on a central element of the government’s criminal case against former officials of the now-defunct Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. Prosecutors say the officials dispensed funds to terrorists under the guise of charity donations to community groups called zakat committees on the West Bank and Gaza, knowing that Hamas militants controlled the local groups and benefited from the funding.
In his first day of cross-examination, the Israel Security Agency officer, identified only as “Avi,” struggled for answers when questioned about leadership of the overseas charities and whether they had Hamas ties before 2001, when Holy Land Foundation still operated.
The organization, once the nation’s largest Islamic charity, was closed by the U.S. government shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This was done on grounds that it funneled millions of dollars to Hamas over the years. Holy Land officials denied that.
This week, in a move opposed by defense lawyers and questioned by some legal experts, an Israeli counterterrorism official was allowed to appear as an expert witness for the government. During that testimony, the courtroom was closed to the public and the media.
Courts have sometimes allowed witnesses with unique firsthand knowledge of a crime to testify anonymously before juries. But this was believed to be the first time the government had asked -- and a judge had permitted -- a witness to testify as an expert without being identified to the accused.
The agent, whose audio testimony was broadcast via closed-circuit television to a separate courtroom for the media and spectators, began his second day on the stand. He described alleged connections between Hamas and nine Palestinian charities funded by Holy Land in the West Bank and Gaza.
He said the Islamic Charitable Society of Hebron, for example, was Hamas’ largest and most important fund-raising arm in the West Bank and was controlled by Hamas activists.
“It is no secret in the territories who controls these committees,” he said.
But on cross-examination, the agent said he could not recall where or when anyone other than an Israeli intelligence official might have read or otherwise known that specific zakat committees or board members had ties to Hamas. In prior court papers, Holy Land officials have maintained that they never supported Hamas and did not have any reason to believe the charity committees were run by Hamas.
Defense lawyers also elicited testimony that other large charities such as Holy Land Foundation in England and Holland--also identified by “Avi” as part of Hamas’ global network--have been cleared after investigations in those countries. Acknowledging that a British charity called Interpal was allowed to reopen after a commission ruled that there was no evidence against it, the agent added: “Clearly, they didn’t have my evidence.”