On November 4, 2010, more than 300 students, teachers, and activists packed a student center on Rutgers University’s Busch campus in Piscataway, New Jersey. They were treated to three hours of speeches assailing Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and asked to open their hearts and their wallets for an organization called USTOGAZA. The organization was attempting to raise enough money to join the latest trend in anti-Israel activism: flotillas. But the event’s organizers—most prominently the Rutgers student group BAKA—did more than support a run-of-the-mill political rally. They may have encouraged everyone in attendance to run afoul of federal terrorism laws. How and why this is the case represents the dangerous turn campus anti-Israel activism has taken in the age of the flotilla.
The “flotillas” began in May 2010, when a Turkey-based organization known as IHH (Insani Yardim Vakfi) led a convoy of boats through the Mediterranean in an attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. It soon became clear this was anything but a humanitarian mission; French and American counterterrorism authorities have been warning of the organization’s involvement in terrorism for years, and IHH is banned in Israel for that reason. Israeli naval commandos boarded one of the ships to ensure weapons weren’t being smuggled in to Hamas. They were assaulted, and the ensuing struggle resulted in the deaths of nine of the attackers.
But the most significant aspect of the flotillas—in 2011 the movement tried again, establishing the stunt as an annual rite—is the paradigm shift they represent in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Activism in opposition to Israel was once confined mainly to protests, rallies, and the occasional harassment of Jewish students on college campuses. But it grew to include assistance to groups that confront Israeli authorities and the Israeli military. With the flotillas, and their supporters at Rutgers and elsewhere, the activism has again added an element: providing aid to groups that are designated as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) by the U.S. government.
The United States officially designated Hamas a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. Consequently, American individuals and organizations (including charities) cannot give financial or other material support to Hamas without facing the possibility of criminal prosecution. Four years later, the FBI brought charges against those involved with so-called humanitarian aid groups who funnelled money to Hamas. They were involved with a U.S.-based charity known at various times as the “Occupied Land Fund” and the “Holy Land Foundation.” The group’s stated goal was to find “solutions to human suffering through humanitarian programs.” Their method was to funnel tax-deductible charitable donations from U.S. citizens to Hamas. By 2010, things had changed for the worse, due to the efforts of an umbrella organization called the Free Gaza Movement and others like it. The romance of a blockade-busting humanitarian voyage to Gaza enticed luminaries from around the world to support the flotilla campaign in the name of “human rights.”
Yet the intentions behind the Free Gaza Movement were made clear at the November 2010 fundraiser at Rutgers. During the event, FGM board member Adam Shapiro publicly admitted that the flotillas were not about delivering aid. Rather, Shapiro declared the movement a ploy to turn the conflict between Hamas and Israel into “one between the rest of the world and Israel.”
Describing the movement as a “third intifada,” Shapiro exclaimed, “Free Gaza is a tactic…[and] a strategy now to transform the conflict and internationalize it and really undermine Israel where it gets its most support.” The sentiment was echoed by another Free Gaza leader, Ewa Jasiewicz, who stressed that “the flotilla is not about expanding the drip of humanitarian aid to Gaza.”
USTOGAZA, a coalition of organizations and individuals who together were working to furnish and outfit a flotilla ship named The Audacity of Hope, announced on its website that its mission was “to challenge U.S. foreign policy” by purchasing a boat in order to deliver, among other things, “construction materials” to Gaza, because “building materials and other supplies are banned” by the Israeli authorities.
The nexus between flotilla organizers and Hamas, as well as other terrorist organizations, is solid. As Jean-Louis Bruguière, France’s former top counterterrorism judge, has stated, those behind the flotilla have “clear, long-standing ties to terrorism and Jihad.” Key organizers of the Free Gaza Movement, Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, were among the founding members of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group of self-described nonviolent supporters of “Palestinian popular resistance” who have interfered with Israeli antiterror military operations.
As Eric Adler wrote in these pages in 2005, Arraf, during an event held at Duke University on October 15, 2004, “defended the terrorist activities of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” another designated foreign terrorist organization. And, in Adler’s words, Arraf acknowledged “that the ISM cooperates with the terror organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, [and] encouraged students to join the group and instructed them on how to enter Israel surreptitiously and how to deal with possible arrest and deportation.” Another ISM figure, Richard David Hupper, a U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 46 months in prison and fined $15,000 on August 25, 2008, after he pled guilty to one count of providing material support to Hamas. A senior Islamic Jihad terrorist, Shadi Sukiya, was arrested while hiding in the ISM office in the West Bank city of Jenin in 2003.
In 2007, Hamas Minister Bassem Naim sent a personal invitation to the Free Gaza Movement, encouraging the organization to “help lift the siege.” The letter asked the group for information “in order to facilitate the necessary arrangements” for the flotilla. Following the arrival of Free Gaza members in Gaza in August 2008, the group met with Hamas leaders, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, at a photographed ceremony during which Hamas presented the activists with medals. Hamas also bestowed honorary Palestinian citizenship upon Jeff Halper, one of the trip’s organizers. Participants in the second Free Gaza Movement ship to Gaza in October 2008 were similarly greeted by Hamas police and met with top Hamas officials, who thanked them and lavished gifts and Palestinian passports on them.
Free Gaza’s May 2010 flotilla was organized with IHH. Although IHH has not yet been officially designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government, the organization is, according to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report, “part of a Saudi-based, Hamas-created umbrella group of Muslim charities called Union of Good.” The Union of Good was designated an FTO in 2008 and, the report noted, was created “to transfer funds to the terrorist organization” via a web of charities.
“In addition to providing cover for Hamas financial transfers,” the Treasury Department has reported, “some of the funds transferred by the Union of Good have compensated Hamas terrorists by providing payments to the families of suicide bombers,” and “the Union of Good’s executive leadership and board of directors includes Hamas leaders.” Furthermore, the undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial crimes, David Cohen, confirmed in a diplomatic cable to the State Department that IHH provides “material assistance” to Hamas. A list of contributions on IHH’s website reveals the group has given millions of dollars in cash to Hamas officials.
Following the May 2010 flotilla to Gaza, leaders of IHH met with Hamas leaders. At the meeting, Hamas thanked IHH for its help in organizing the flotilla, and IHH President Bülent Yildirim promised to make the “embargo meaningless by bringing aid to Palestine in ships.” Prior to the May 2010 flotilla, Hamas made “receiving efforts,” including plans to accompany the boats with unarmed Hamas naval police, to protect foreigners upon arrival, to find them accommodations, and to coordinate the unloading and distribution of cargo. On its website, IHH stated that the May 2010 flotilla’s cargo was to be delivered to “official authorities in the region,” which presumably meant Hamas.
USTOGAZA was on the steering committee and part of the international planning team for the Freedom Flotilla II, the name given to the flotilla that attempted to sail to Gaza this past spring. The planning team included IHH and Free Gaza.
At some point before November 2010, BAKA, the Rutgers organization that also calls itself “Students United for Middle Eastern Justice,” applied for and received $2,500 from Rutgers University’s student-run allocations committee to hold a fundraiser for USTOGAZA. Adam Shapiro was there. So was Fida Qishta of the International Solidarity Movement, as was Nada Khader, the director of another pro-flotilla group, WESPAC. Rounding out the dais was former U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright. Wright participated in a 2009 delegation to Gaza whose members met with Hamas representative Huda Naim. Qishta, Khader, and Wright have all expressed support for Hamas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. One attendee of the BAKA event who wrote about it for the Rutgers students newspaper noted that Khader “said outright that the Palestinian Authority does not represent the Palestinian people” and “stopped just short of proclaiming her allegiance to Hamas.”
Whether BAKA knew of the links that USTOGAZA and its affiliates have to Hamas and IHH is debatable and, frankly, irrelevant. What is clear is that a Rutgers student group intended to raise money for USTOGAZA and that USTOGAZA’s stated purpose was to use the money to furnish and outfit a boat intended to take part in the 2011 “Freedom Flotilla.”
Students, faculty, and alumni who knew about BAKA’s less-than-savory friends were concerned. They voiced those concerns and started asking questions. Rutgers Hillel, the university’s foundation for Jewish life, released a statement three days before the event objecting to it and outlining legal concerns stemming from the university’s involvement. Letters were sent to Rutgers’s president, Richard L. McCormick, and to members of the board of directors. But answers were less than satisfactory and came only after the university allowed the event to take place.
According to university policy, any money raised on campus is kept in a university account, and all funds raised must go to an IRS-recognized tax-exempt charity, a status that USTOGAZA has never acquired. USTOGAZA’s website directs donations of less than $150 to Stand for Justice, a registered New York corporation, and tax-deductible donations of $150 or more to the nonprofit Institute for Media Analysis.
Concerned about the implications of flotilla fundraising on campus, a Rutgers student group asked the Lawfare Project (a nonprofit legal think tank directed by one of the authors) to prepare a memorandum analyzing the liability that could ensue as a result of BAKA’s actions. Legal issues surrounding the flotilla and the fundraising behind it are nothing new; there have been multiple lawsuits aimed at stopping the 2011 flotilla and fundraising efforts on its behalf. A suit in Manhattan was brought against flotilla organizers to confiscate their ships and the monies raised, with the goal of compensating terror victims. In Florida, an Israeli citizen sued one of the largest satellite communications companies in the world, seeking an injunction forbidding the provision of satellite services to the flotilla. In another case, in Canada, an injunction was sought against the organizers behind the “Canada Boat to Gaza.”
Section 2339B of the U.S. Code makes it criminal to knowingly provide “material support or resources” to a foreign terrorist organization, as well as any attempt or conspiracy to do so. A prior section defines “material support or resources” to include any property or service, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safe-house, identification, equipment, facilities, weapons, explosives, personnel, transportation—basically anything except medicine and religious materials. As the Supreme Court stressed in the recent case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, Congress deliberately crafted a broad definition of material support because it found that “foreign organizations that engage in terrorist activity are so tainted by their criminal conduct that any contribution to such an organization facilitates that conduct.”
Indeed, Congress had initially excluded “humanitarian assistance to persons not directly involved in” terrorist activity—but actually removed that exception in 1996 as part of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. “That repeal,” the Supreme Court decided, “demonstrates that Congress considered and rejected the view that ostensibly peaceful aid would have no harmful effects.”
Accordingly, the court found that any activity that is “directed to, coordinated with, or controlled by” a foreign terrorist organization constitutes material support of it. Citing a description of Hamas’s fundraising activities, the court further explained how funds raised ostensibly for charitable purposes have in the past been redirected to “systematically conceal…activities behind charitable, social, and political fronts.” It has even ruled that one can be prosecuted for “advocacy performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization,” including teaching foreign terrorist organization members how to petition representative bodies such as the UN for relief, particularly in monetary form. Providing unauthorized legal advice to terrorist groups on how to maneuver within Western legal systems (i.e., how to engage in lawfare) has also been prosecuted under the statute.
The novelty of the Rutgers case is that the material assistance provided by USTOGAZA to Hamas is not financial; it includes support of a less tangible but equally vital nature. Flotilla fundraisers and organizers work to lend legitimacy and logistical support to Hamas and its hostile dominion over Gaza—support that makes it easier for Hamas to persist, to recruit members, and to raise funds, all of which facilitates more terrorist attacks. The flotillas further terrorism by straining the United States’ relationship with its allies and undermining cooperative efforts between nations to prevent terrorist attacks. The basic goal of the flotillas is to break a legal maritime blockade put in place to prevent Hamas from acquiring materials and weapons it can use, and has used, to kill innocent men, women, and children. And by arming themselves with daggers and clubs, and intentionally offering themselves up, the people on at least one of the boats gave Hamas more of its most treasured commodity: casualties it could claim were caused by Israeli aggression.
And then there is the cargo on the ships. The 2010 Freedom Flotilla carried not only food and medical supplies, but also dual-use materials such as cement and rebar—which can be used either for benevolent civil-engineering projects or for the construction of improvised explosive devices, rocket pads, and bunkers. Hamas appropriates much of the aid that enters Gaza and sells it for profit or puts it to use toward weapons targeting civilians—while hiding among civilians. That’s why the U.S. State Department supports Israel’s right to inspect Gaza-bound cargo and advises all “humanitarian”-aid groups to go through established channels.
When the Israel Defense Forces boarded Free Gaza’s May 2010 flotilla vessel, the Challenger 1, they recovered an internal FGM legal document that was apparently intended to be conveyed to the boat’s passengers. An Israeli government analysis of the document is damning:
This information explicitly states that the organization is aware of the fact that the transfer of supplies to the Hamas [sic] constitutes a crime under the laws of the United States, and also that the United Nations added the Hamas [sic] to its blacklist of terrorist organizations. Therefore, the Americans and citizens of other nationalities were warned “to avoid even the appearance of material support” for the Hamas [sic] or its leadership.
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Six months after the fundraiser and subsequent controversy, Rutgers president McCormick announced his resignation, effective in 2013. In the meantime, what the university has done with the students’ money remains unclear. University officials have dodged repeated requests for comment and information on the matter. Calls have been made to Rutgers’s staff, the president’s office, the Office of Student Life, and the general counsel for the university, yet no one has been willing to provide real answers. A posting on BAKA’s website claims that the money was given to the WESPAC Foundation, an organization that shares the same goals as USTOGAZA, contains links to USTOGAZA on its website, and has vocally expressed its commitment to sailing in future flotillas.
There are countless ways to help the deprived civilians in Gaza without enriching Hamas. If BAKA, USTOGAZA, Free Gaza, and others had raised money for sailing vessels, coordinated their arrival in Gaza with the Israelis, and given the onboard supplies to ordinary Palestinians—or organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross that regularly deliver approved goods through secure channels—it is doubtful anyone could find legal fault with their actions. Yet they never tried to hide what they were doing.
And no one at New Jersey’s state university tried to stop them.