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Focus on Issues: U.S. Jewish and Arab Groups Differ on Fight Against Terrorism

June 7, 2000
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The issue of how to protect civil liberties while fighting terrorism has opened another rift between American Jewish groups and their Muslim and Arab counterparts.

The latest clash between the two communities came with this week’s release of a report by the National Commission on Terrorism that was applauded by Jewish groups, but denounced by Arab and Muslim Americans.

The disagreement over the report, issued Monday, sounds like a replay of the events that led up to the commission’s inception, when the groups sparred over who should serve on the panel.

Jewish groups objected to the nomination last year of Salam Al-Marayati to the commission, accusing the Muslim Public Affairs Council leader of condoning terrorism and making statements highly critical of Israel. The nomination was withdrawn, a move Arab groups denounced as part of a campaign to exclude Arabs and Muslims from government policy-making positions.

The National Commission on Terrorism is a temporary 10-commissioner group set up in 1999 to evaluate America’s laws, policies and practices for preventing and punishing terrorism directed at U.S. citizens. The commission had six months to complete the report, its one and only assignment, and the group is to be disbanded.

One of the major findings of the report, “Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism,” is that many terrorist groups rely more on private financial support than on direct state sponsorship.

Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, it is a crime for anyone in the United States to provide funds or other material support to a terrorist organization.

People cannot give money to social service programs and schools run by a terrorist organization even if the money is not used for terrorist purposes.

The provisions of this law are important, the commission said, but a more comprehensive approach is needed.

Among the report’s recommendations:

Any person in the United States providing funds to terrorist organizations or activities should be investigated and possibly prosecuted.

The United States should establish a special task force of government agencies to collect information about terrorist fund-raising and coordinate investigation of money laundering, tax and fraud violations.

The Treasury Department should create a new unit dedicated to combat terrorist fund-raising.

The recommendations show the commission recognizes the “big change in the way terrorism operates,” said Stacy Burdett, assistant director for the Anti- Defamation League’s Government and National Affairs Office.

“The report is useful in focusing Congress on the need to respond to terrorist fund-raising among private groups,” Burdett added.

But the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a civil rights organization, said measures targeting terrorist fund-raising would restrict legitimate international charitable work and constitute an attack on First Amendment-protected political activity.

Other Arab and Muslim groups protested many parts of the report.

“If the past is any indication, all or most of these new provisions will be used to target Muslims in this country and worldwide,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Commissioner Juliette Kayyem, an Arab-American civil rights attorney who took Al-Marayati’s place after his name was withdrawn, said she recognizes that the panel’s recommendations would affect Arabs and Muslims differently than any other American group. But she said no group in particular was targeted.

“There’s no specific recommendation that should concern the Arab and Muslim community,” Kayyem said.

The commission also addressed the controversial use of secret evidence against terror suspects detained in the United States. About two dozen people, most of them Arabs and Muslims, are currently held in the United States after being arrested without charge and jailed on the basis of evidence withheld from them and their attorneys.

Most Jewish groups support the use of classified evidence but call for safeguards to achieve a balance between due process and national security concerns. The issue is a somewhat awkward one for Jewish groups, which often fight for the protection of civil liberties.

Arab groups say the use of secret evidence is discriminatory, unconstitutional and violates human rights. Legislation pending in Congress, supported by many civil rights organizations, would end the use of secret evidence in American courts.

The American Jewish Committee said at a recent hearing on the bill that a ban on use of classified information against terror suspects would hinder America’s fight against terrorism.

The commission attempted to strike a balance on the issue. It recommended that the criminal prosecution of terrorists be pursued in an open court wherever possible, but if secret evidence is required for national security reasons, special attorneys who hold security clearances and unclassified summaries of the evidence should be provided to the accused.

“Resort to use of secret evidence without disclosure even to cleared counsel should be discontinued, especially when criminal prosecution through an open court proceeding is an option,” the report said.

The commission noted that protections for suspects were included in the 1996 legislation that authorized the use of secret evidence, but have not been used.

The commission also said Iran and Syria should be kept on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The report recommended that no further concessions toward Iran be made until Tehran demonstrates it has stopped supporting terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The commissioners said Iran’s support for worldwide terrorism constitutes one of the foremost threats to American lives, and the report urged the U.S. not to soften its policy toward Iran in any respect.

The United States should make clear to Syria that it will continue to be considered a state sponsor of terrorism until it shuts down terrorist training camps in Syria and Lebanon and forbids the Iranian government to resupply those facilities, the report said.

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