Harvard's Islamic and Arab student groups held a fundraising dinner Thursday night to raise money for medical relief in the Palestinian Authority territories.
But the two groups for whom the funds were earmarked have recently been accused of supporting terrorist activity.
The U.S. State Department requested in August that one of the groups, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), be removed from the roster of charities and relief groups supported by the Agency for International Development because of suspected ties to Hamas, an Islamic terrorist group.
Other accusations against the two groups, the HLF and the Palestinian Red Crescent, have been levied by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Israeli military and the World Jewish Congress.
The fundraising dinner at Harvard was the final event of Islamic Awareness Week, which was coordinated by the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) and the Society of Arab Students (SAS).
"Originally, it was to be the culmination of a week's worth of dialogue," HIS President Zayed M. Yasin '02 said. "Given the state of the Middle East, though, we wanted to make something more with it, to have a positive effect."
HIS and SAS selected the Palestinian Red Crescent and the HLF as potential recipients of funds because of their reputations for legitimacy and transparency, Yasin said.
"When I was in Albania two summers ago, I saw the HLF in action, and they were very professional. I've never heard anything bad about them," Yasin said. "The benefit of [these] foundations is that they are fairly transparent, that where their money goes is clear."
The Red Crescent is the Palestinian branch of the International Red Cross, an avowedly neutral humanitarian organization. The HLF says it is a foundation dedicated to providing relief to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.
According to the ADL, the HLF "has provided support to families of suicide bombers and others with links to Hamas, which continues to sponsor international acts of terrorism and is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department."
Several Arab-American groups have charged in recent years that the ADL is too quick to label Islamic charities as terrorist-linked.
State Department officials said that they suspect that the HLF has ties to Hamas because it gives aid to the families of suicide bombers.
Yasin took issue with the State Department position on the HLF.
"Every time an individual commits a suicide bombing it is a tragedy," he said. "If the State Department wants to criminalize the care of widows and orphans, that lies on their conscience, not ours."
The World Jewish Congress and the ADL have accused the Palestinian Red Crescent of using ambulances to carry rocks and molotov cocktails to hot spots in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israeli military officials said that gunfire had originated from Red Crescent offices and ambulances on at least five occasions.
The ADL recently urged the Red Crescent to "stop the use of Palestinian ambulances in facilitating acts of violence against Israel."
However, the International Red Cross denied charges that the Palestinian Red Crescent has used resources in a non-neutral fashion.
Organizers of the Harvard dinner said they had only recently heard about the controversy regarding the two charities.
Sam L. Sternin '01, a member of HIS and SAS, said he had only heard about the Red Crescent controversy earlier in the day and had immediately passed along the concerns to the leadership.
Sternin said he had read articles describing instances where shots apparently originated from in or near Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances.
"In my opinion if such events did happen, I think it is very serious and unfortunate," Sternin said. "However, there are many reasons to believe that these were isolated incidences."
He pointed to evidence that the group's mission was not antagonistic to Israel.
"There was an event reported in the Jerusalem papers where the [Red Crescent] treated Israeli soldiers. If the mission of the organization was really to be fighting the Israeli military, that event wouldn't have happened," Sternin said.
He also argued that the Palestinian Red Crescent is internationally recognized as legitimate.
"The [United Nations], [World Health Organization], and the American Red Cross are all sending aid to the [Red Crescent]," he said.
Most attendees of the dinner said they were unaware of the controversy. Dr. S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, said he had not read any reports about it and added that his attendance had nothing to do with concerns about the accusations.
"I'm here to enjoy a wonderful opportunity for a community to get together. It's important that we make sure everybody feels a part of the greater community," Counter said.
Chris G. Kanakry '03, a member of SAS, said he was hesitant to believe reports of the groups' misconduct.
"I don't know if the accounts are accurate. They sound very speculative," he said. "I also don't know if it is very relevant because the majority of the attacks have been by Israelis."
He said he felt that, were the accusations true, they still paled in comparison to other events of the Middle East conflict.
"This incident doesn't correspond in magnitude to some of the things the Israelis have done--it's comparing gunships, helicopters and artillery to whatever the [Red Crescent] is accused of doing," Kanakry said.
Sternin reiterated that "the proper people in HIS have been made aware" of the allegations.
Yasin said the final decision about where the money would go will be made by HIS's executive board with input from SAS.
"Any humanitarian organization that seeks to provide aid to the Palestinian people will inevitably come under attack from those with a political agenda against the fulfillment of the basic human rights of Palestinians," Yasin said.