Amid charges that the U.S. government is launching a war on Arab Americans, Congress has begun to consider measures to halt American donations to terrorist groups.
Among the groups being targeted are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Muslim fundamentalist organizations that claimed responsibility for Sunday’s suicide bombings in the Gaza Strip.
The long legislative road for the Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act began last week with hearings before the House Judiciary Committee.
In addition to banning charitable contributions to terrorist groups, the bill would beef up federal anti-terrorism statutes, ban terrorist leaders from traveling to the United States and established expedited deportation hearings for aliens suspected of terrorism.
The pending legislation is phase two of the U.S. government’s was on terrorism. Phase one came in January when President Clinton issued an executive order against terrorist groups.
In addition to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the order listed 10 other groups, including two Jewish extremist organizations, Kach and Kahane Chai.
The legislative flurry came just four days before the terrorist attacks near two Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. Seven Israeli soldiers and an American Jewish university student were killed in one of the explosions.
The latest attacks enhanced the resolve of some legislators to pursue the bill.
“This proves more than ever the need for a terrorism bill to quash American fund raising for Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” said Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who introduced the bill on behalf of the Clinton administration in January.
Jewish organizations are pushing the bill as one of the central tenets of their agenda in Washington.
“The problem with terrorism is very real and very tangible,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director and counsel of the Washington office of the Anti- Defamation League.
“The need to enhance American legal capabilities, including law enforcement’s ability to prevent terrorist acts, as very clear to us.”
Lieberman and other said the efforts come against the backdrop of an especially violent year of terrorist activity, from attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires and London to the more recent incidents in Israel.
But the legislation is facing stiff opposition.
Civil liberties groups, some lawmakers and especially Arab American groups have attacked the bill as an assault on the constitution rights of some Americans.
Among the provisions in the proposed legislation most troubling for civil libertarians are expedited deportation hearings for aliens suspected of terrorism and elaborate licensing procedures for organizations seeking to raise funds of organizations deemed by the president to be terrorist groups.
At a news conference during a break in last week’s hearing, Arab American leaders lambasted members of Congress, the Clinton administration and Jewish organizations for pushing “stupid laws like this.”
Asserting that the legislation would infringe on the civil rights of Arab Americans, James Zogby, director of the Arab American Institute, said, “This is not a war against terrorism. This is a war against the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States.”
Zogby contended that the Arab American communities “have been seen as the weal link in the civil liberties chain” and that attempts to erode civil rights have often targeted Arabs and Muslims.
Because of civil rights concerns, the American Civil Liberties Union testified in opposition to the bill at last week’s hearing.
Some Jewish groups, though instrumental in helping to write the legislation, have agreed that some changes are necessary to ensure civil rights protections.
Both the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee say such changes are in the works.
“This is a work in progress,” said the ADL’s Lieberman.
Lieberman said that with “two or three minor modifications,” the bill would pass the civil liberties test.
But these changes will not eliminate the fundamental disagreements between the Arab American and Jewish communities over defining a terrorist and the overall need for anti-terrorism legislation.
“We will not compromise on our support for a broad anti-terrorism bill,” Lieberman said, voicing the views of many in the Jewish community.
Many Arab Americans maintain that Hamas is not a terrorist group. They argue that only small independent factions of the organization carry out deadly attacks such as last Sunday’s bombing in Gaza.
Many Arab Americans were dismayed when President Clinton, in issuing his executive order against terrorist groups in January, included Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“Hamas is not terrorist organization,” said Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council. “The issue for us is to be conscious of where to give our money, but not to be dictated to where we send our money.
“If the United Palestinian Appeal will be affected by this legislation,” then “the United Jewish Appeal will be affected by this,” Alamoudi threatened, referring to the Jewish community’s fund-raising apparatus.
“We will ensure that it is,” he said.
However, the Clinton administration and Jewish groups disagree that the pending legislation would prevent donations to social service agencies such as orphanages.
Supporters of the bill say support for Hamas-run social service agencies could continue as long as fund-raisers follow a licensing procedure and can certify that money is not going to be siphoned off to fund terrorism.
Estimates on how much American money now flows to Middle East terror groups vary widely, from hundreds of thousands of dollars to the tens of millions a year.
As the Arab American groups have begun to test their political muscle on Capitol Hill in an effort to derail the legislation, Jewish organizations have begun their own campaign to lobby for its passage.
Immediately after the hearing last week, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council initiated a conference call to inform its members of the bill and to plan lobbying strategies.
Members across the country were encouraged to support the bill when they meet with members of Congress during the current recess.
At the same time, leaders encouraged their members to push for changes to satisfy the civil right concerns that many in the Jewish community share.
Subcommittees of the House Judiciary Committee have scheduled further hearings on the bill in May.
The committee chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-III.), could introduce a substitute bill that would address the civil liberty concerns surrounding the legislation, according to Capitol Hill aides.