Students Question Ban on Charity

President Bush widened the “war on terrorism” Tuesday, freezing the assets of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), a Texas-based Muslim charity he claims is part of the Hamas terrorist financial network.

Last year, the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) and the Society of Arab Students (SAS) organized a dinner to raise relief funds for Palestinians. The student organizations had considered donating a portion of the proceeds to HLF, the largest Muslim charity in the U.S.—an organization now accused of financing Hamas. A Palestinian militant group, Hamas claimed responsibility for three suicide bombings in Israel last weekend that killed 25 people.

“We did the dinner along with the SAS, and in consultation with them, we decided to give [the money] to the Palestinian Red Crescent in the end,” said HIS President Saif I. Shah Mohammed ’02, who was last year’s HIS treasurer.

The dinner, held at the end of Islamic Awareness Week in November, raised $1,758 for the Red Crescent, the Palestinian branch of the International Red Cross. Shah Mohammed said that for at least the last three years HIS has not donated money to HLF, and said he does not know whether HIS gave money to the group before that.

The Anti-Defamation League, an organization committed to “fighting anti-Semitism, bigotry and extremism,” has criticized both HLF and the Red Crescent in the past.

Former HIS President Zayed M. Yasin ’02 said they considered donating to HLF “because they have a reputation for being an efficient and transparent aid agency.”

He said HIS never has supported violence against civilians or any organization that supports or sponsors violence against civilians.

“We only considered donating to HLF after we had thoroughly convinced ourselves that HLF was a completely legitimate charitable organization,” Yasin said.

Three years ago, Yasin was in Albania, and though he did not work directly with HLF, he saw their commitment and strong presence, he said.

“They did incredible work in terms of taking care of the physical, medical and psychological needs of the refugees there,” Yasin said.

According to a U.S. Treasury press release, HLF “raised over $13 million” last year and gives “millions of dollars annually” to Hamas. The Treasury said HLF supports Hamas by “direct fund transfers” to organizations affiliated with Hamas, financial support of schools “encouraging children to become suicide bombers,” and by enabling it “to recruit suicide bombers by offering support to their families.”

Yasin said that although HLF does support the widows and orphans of suicide bombers among the people it helps with its health care and food programs, their support is justifiable.

“I think that this attempt, to criminalize the care of widows and orphans, is a very underhanded way of pursuing a political agenda and that it is absolutely unconscionable to attack an organization that takes care of the poor, the sick because you disagree with the causes that may have contributed to these people’s destitution,” Yasin said.

SAS President Rita Hamad ’03 also said she thought the government’s actions against HLF were unfounded.

“I think the decision of the American government was very political in nature and not based on any sort of legitimate basis that the Holy Land Foundation is a terrorist organization or a terrorist-supporting organization,” Hamad said.

Bush’s declaration was a strong sign of support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had previously said the U.S. should treat Hamas more harshly.