Who’s behind the pro-Palestinian protests in the U.S.?


Jewish Voice for Peace has organized hundreds of protests across the country with tens of thousands of participants since the invasion of Gaza. While its events are generally peaceful, it has come under criticism for some actions, including inviting convicted terrorist Rasmea Odeh to speak at a national event in 2017.  

Odeh’s supporters say Israel tortured her into a false confession. Odeh was a founding member of the Chicago chapter of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network before U.S. officials deported her in 2017 for failing to disclose a terrorism conviction in Israel. 

Stefanie Fox, Jewish Voice for Peace’s executive director, said people must think critically about the U.S. government’s history of applying the word “terrorism” to specific communities. “International law recognizes the rights of occupied peoples to resist their oppression, including through the use of force within clear parameters that always protect civilians in conflict,” Fox said.  

In 2020, Zoom, Facebook and YouTube shut down an online event featuring Leila Khaled, a Palestinian activist who spent time in prison for hijacking planes. In a statement condemning censorship, Jewish Voice for Peace called her a “Palestinian resistance icon” and slammed the tech companies. 

According to congressional testimony, public statements and interviews, current and former government officials in the U.S., Europe, Israel and Canada claim that some leaders of the pro-Palestinian protest movement promote rhetoric from Hamas or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP. They also say some groups work with members of the PFLP. The State Department has designated both groups as terrorist organizations.  

On and after the Oct. 7 attacks, when about 1,200 people were killed and more than 240 were taken hostage, the PFLP’s military wing, the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, claimed on Telegram that it had participated in the carnage. It urged other Palestinians to join it. Federal investigators in Washington, D.C., said they do not dispute the PFLP’s claim that it participated in the attack. 

Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury Department official, called for more aggressive investigation of ties between pro-Palestinian groups in the U.S. and terrorist organizations in testimony to Congress in November. 

“Individuals who previously worked for Hamas charities are now a driving force behind the large pro-Hamas demonstrations taking place in major cities across America,” said Schanzer, who is now senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.  

Schanzer cited Hatem Bazian, a longtime lecturer at the University of California Berkeley, as an example. Bazian founded the national branch of Students for Justice in Palestine to focus on campus-based activism, and he later launched American Muslims for Palestine. Both groups advocate for the U.S. government to end its support of Israel. 

Dr. Hatem Bazian, Chairman of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) speaks at a news conference at the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Harlem-125th Street Metro North commuter train station to launch an advertisement campaign criticizing Israel and U.S. support for Israel in New York City on March 26, 2013.
Hatem Bazian, chairman of American Muslims for Palestine, speaks at a news conference to launch an advertisement campaign criticizing Israel and U.S. support for it in New York City on March 26, 2013.Mike Seger / Reuters

Schanzer argued that Bazian and his organizations are part of a network that is “providing training, talking points, materials and financial support to students intimidating and threatening Jewish and pro-Israel students on college campuses.” 

The attorney general’s office of Virginia, where American Muslims for Palestine is headquartered, also opened an investigation of the group after an Israeli American family accused it of potentially using funds to benefit terrorist organizations. 

The attorney general’s office said it could not comment on an open investigation. Bazian said the allegations from Capitol Hill and Virginia are false. 

“You are guilty because you passed by someone who was eating a shawarma, who is connected to somebody who lives in Gaza, who knows somebody who might be a member of Hamas,” Bazian said. “That’s basically where we are at.” 

Samidoun

Officials concerned about hidden links to terrorist groups point to a little-known international organization called Samidoun, the Arabic word for “steadfast.”  

On its website, the Canadian-registered nonprofit group describes itself as “an international network of organizers and activists working to build solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in their struggle for freedom.” 

But the Israeli government and several think tanks in Europe and Israel say Samidoun’s leadership is composed of current and former members of the PFLP. Germany banned Samidoun a few weeks after the Oct. 7 attacks, arguing that Samidoun members had praised and supported Hamas during street protests.  

The Israeli government declared Samidoun a terrorist organization in 2021. “They support terrorism, and they want to gain public opinion — support — for terrorism,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, the former chief of the research division in the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence wing.  

The group’s international coordinator, Charlotte Kates, originally from New Jersey, is listed as one of three directors on Samidoun’s nonprofit registration in Canada. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Other members of Samidoun’s leadership in Canada and in Europe also did not respond. 

But Samidoun does not hide its activities. In a Feb. 27 YouTube video in which Kates is featured along with Dr. Basem Naim, a senior Hamas official, Kates described the Oct. 7 attacks as a “heroic operation.” In another February webinar on YouTube, she spoke to activists in New York and explained why her organization does not distance itself from Hamas or other groups deemed terrorists by the U.S. and Israel. 

“What we see here is an alliance — an alliance of forces that is working together for a different future for the region that is free of U.S. imperialism and it is free of Zionist colonialism,” Kates told viewers. “And these forces of resistance, right now, are in the front lines of defending humanity.” 

Kiswani, the New York-based activist, was featured in a 2020 Samidoun YouTube video in which she said “Zionists” had flooded her law school administration with emails claiming she is antisemitic. School officials cleared her of any wrongdoing. 

Since Oct. 7, Samidoun has co-sponsored or co-organized at least three protests led by Within Our Lifetime and another group called the Palestinian Youth Movement, according to online flyers posted by the two organizations. Samidoun has “compiled a lot of history, things that we use in the movement to talk about Palestinian prisoners, and so we respect and appreciate them for that work,” Kiswani said. 

There are active campaigns in Canada and in the European Union to ban Samidoun and have it classified as a terrorist organization. “I ain’t Jewish or Palestinian; I don’t have a stake in this,” said Leo Housakos, a member of Canada’s Senate, who has been pushing his government to shut down Samidoun and deport its leadership. “I feel strongly about a sense of security.” 

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment about whether the agency is investigating Samidoun. The FBI also declined to comment. 

Protected speech

Civil rights experts said that in the U.S., unlike countries with stricter hate speech laws, activist groups such as Samidoun can express their views more freely, as long as they are not working directly with designated terrorist groups. 

“Even if you literally were advocating entirely, unambiguously pro-Hamas views in favor of all of their tactics, [it] is protected so long as the speaker is not coordinating with Hamas itself,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, a UCLA law professor who has represented detained immigrants and Muslim Americans in civil rights cases before the Supreme Court three times since 2016. 

Federal officials say fine lines separate protected speech, hate speech and incitement. Federal prosecutors can prosecute speech if it rises to the level of clear threats of violence when stated specifically and if violent actions are being planned. Hate speech alone is not enough to deem a person or an organization a terrorist. 

“Unlike many of our foreign partners, the United States, under the First Amendment, cannot designate organizations based solely on hateful speech,” Vincent Picard, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, said by email. “The Secretary of State must determine that it is a foreign organization that engages in terrorist activity that threatens the security of United States nationals.” 

While governments may lack the power to shut down most of these groups, private industry has more leeway, as shown last month when Instagram took down Within Our Lifetime’s accounts. A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Instagram, said the group violated community guidelines, which included the platform’s Dangerous Organizations & Individuals policy. 

“Meta is choosing to implement this during a genocide,” Kiswani said. 



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