FBI investigated Americans for supporting Palestinian rights

Activists from the International Solidarity Movement try to stop an Israeli army bulldozer from closing the entrance to Balata refugee camp in the occupied West Bank (Abed Omar Qusini - Reuters)

Ali Abunimah

The Electronic Intifada  /  April 6, 2020

” investigations into Americans for supporting Palestinian rights, documents obtained by The Intercept reveal.

Starting in 2004, the probes focused on activists with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Los Angeles.

There are indications that FBI offices across the country were involved in monitoring Americans solely based on their political views.

It also appears likely that these probes were coordinated with or done at the behest of Israel.

“While the investigations could be viewed as harmless, since they ultimately failed to turn up any evidence of terrorism, they are in line with a dark side of the FBI’s history,” The Intercept’s Chip Gibbons writes.

“ISM turned out to be exactly what it said it was – entirely nonviolent – yet the FBI still justified its probes through paranoid views of political associations.”

“The FBI treated certain forms of speech as evidence of terrorism,” Gibbons adds.

The probes only came to light after the FBI released hundreds of pages of documents following a freedom of information request filed in 2015.

But it was only after litigation that the government released the documents to The Intercept late last year.

The first probe in St. Louis targeted two activists, one called Mark Chmiel and the other unnamed.

Both had gone on an ISM delegation to the occupied West Bank in 2003.

“During the delegation Chmiel was on, Israeli soldiers opened fire on a Palestinian protest and injured one of the St. Louis activists,” according to The Intercept.

The late Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein also travelled on that same delegation.

Epstein later described the horror and violation she felt at being “internally searched” at Ben Gurion airport.

Despite a two-year investigation, the FBI concluded that the St. Louis activists had broken no laws and posed no threat to national security.

“Handwritten notes scrawled in the margins of both FBI files read ‘no leads no evidence,’” according to The Intercept.

It is unclear why the St. Louis probe focused only on two particular activists when many activists from the city had travelled with the ISM.

Relying on Islamophobes

The second major investigation into the ISM was launched months after the St. Louis probe by the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.

It was a “Terrorist Enterprise Investigation” usually launched against groups suspected of using violence to attain their goals.

“Throughout the documents related to the investigation, the FBI again conflated political beliefs with terrorism,” The Intercept notes. The FBI focused on how some ISM members held anti-capitalist views as well as sympathizing with Palestinian rights.

In the eyes of the FBI, government documents reveal, this mix of political views “gives rise to the concern that ISM members can be directed, coerced, or through their own volition, be the purveyors of acts of terrorism.”

In pursuing the group, the Los Angeles field office used confidential informants and even noted the religious and ethnic affiliations of both Palestinian American and Jewish American activists.

FBI offices around the country also followed leads and gathered evidence, sometimes aided by local police.

The FBI documents reveal that the Los Angeles investigation was motivated by claims that ISM activists were “conspiring to violate neutrality laws through direct actions against the Israeli government for its occupation of Palestine and to commit other criminal acts within the US.”

This probe was apparently being carried out under the 1794 Neutrality Act – an archaic tool US authorities have long used to pursue those they consider political enemies.

A particularly disturbing aspect of the FBI’s activities was its reliance on FrontPage Magazine, a website run by the far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center, as a source of information on activists.

The outfit, run by notorious Islamophobic and anti-Black racist David Horowitz, has a long history of harassing and smearing Palestine activists and professors.

Horowitz’s various websites and publications are among the “primary movers of anti-Muslim messages and myths,” according to a landmark study of the Islamophobia industry in the US.

They also frequently smear any advocacy for Palestinian rights as support for “terrorism.”

Although the FBI probes spanned the country, and numerous Palestinian solidarity groups are mentioned in passing in the files, they led to no prosecutions and no allegations of terrorism.

Yet they indicate that the FBI continues to play its historic role as the political secret police of the US government.

The probes into ISM harken back to the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO spying and sabotage program in the 1960s, which targeted Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights and Black radical groups, and the anti-war movement.

Doing Israel’s bidding

There is an indication from The Intercept that the FBI investigations may have been coordinated with or carried out at the behest of Israel.

The documents reveal that FBI agents in the United States shared information with an FBI office stationed in a US embassy overseas.

The FBI has dozens of such overseas offices, including one at the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

But the FBI redacted the location of the office in question, claiming that revealing it “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.”

While it is impossible to be sure, it is a safe bet the FBI station was in Tel Aviv.

Civil rights lawyer Jamil Dakwar makes some crucial observations missed by The Intercept.

Dakwar notes that the FBI investigations “seemingly coincided with the Israeli government’s campaign to delegitimize ISM and bar its activists, especially after the [Israeli army’s] unlawful killing of Rachel Corrie in March 2003 and British citizen Tom Hurndall in April 2003.”

It can also be no coincidence that from 2004-2007, a British police spy infiltrated ISM London.

Corrie was a 23-year-old ISM activist in Gaza who was crushed to death by an Israeli soldier driving a bulldozer as she attempted to protect a Palestinian home from demolition.

Photography student Hurndall, 21, was shot a month later, as he accompanied children to safety as part of his ISM volunteering in Gaza. He died in a British hospital nine months after he was shot.

Just days before Israeli soldiers shot Hurndall, Israel occupation forces in the West Bank city of Jenin shot and seriously wounded American ISM activist Brian Avery.

Rachel Corrie’s parents tried to sue for their daughter’s killing in an Israeli court. During the trial, Israeli government witnesses consistently tried to smear ISM activists as involved with “terrorism.”

Ultimately, not even the FBI agreed with that. However, what amount to secret-police style investigations of Americans exercising their constitutional rights are not harmless.

Instead of supporting Americans like the Corries and Brian Avery who were victimized by Israeli violence, Dakwar observes that “the FBI was more interested in helping the Israeli government smear ISM activists as terrorists.”

He says the FBI must declassify “all relevant documents and provide a full explanation for their questionable investigative activities that are both a waste of taxpayer money, and which will only further chill current and future legitimate Palestine solidarity activism.”

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books