The FBI’s Material Support for Israeli Apartheid Against Palestinians

The FBI’s Material Support for Israeli Apartheid Against Palestinians
Photo credit: Ted Eytan on Flickr

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Israel’s war on the besieged Gaza Strip has entered its sixth day. The Israeli military has launched a massive bombardment with airstrikes killing over 1,000 Palestinians.

This is far from the first time Israel has unleashed a deadly bombing campaign on Gaza with devastating results for Palestinian civilians. But those on the ground report this bombing is unlike any they have lived through before.

As the death toll continues to grow, Israeli military actions have killed at least six journalists and eleven United Nations workers. News broadcasts show high rises leveled and 340,000 people have been rendered homeless by Israeli airstrikes. 

On October 9, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced, “We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything will be closed.” He went on to justify this clear act of collective punishment in violation of international law by stating, “We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly.”

Two days later, Gaza’s generator ran out of power. Night time images of Gaza show complete darkness, except for the bombing and burning of buildings. 

Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. The strip of land is home to 2.3 million people. Part of the reason Gaza is so densely populated is because 70 percent of the population are refugees. Palestinian refugees in Gaza and around the world stem from the ethnic cleansing that was fundamental to Israel’s founding, when entire Palestinian villages were massacred

Since 1967, Israel has militarily occupied the Gaza strip. And for 16 years, Israel has maintained a blockade against Gaza that has been condemned as an illegal form of collective punishment. Gazans cannot leave. There is no airport in Gaza (Israel bombed it in 2001).

Although Gaza is a coastal city, Israel’s blockade extends to the water. Attempts to bring aid to Gaza by sea have been met by violent assaults by the Israeli military, who also routinely shoot at Gazan fishermen. Gaza has been described as the world’s largest open air prison. 

In 2008, as part of the blockade, Israel officials calculated the minimum caloric intake necessary to avoid starvation, so they could restrict food to the bare minimum. Even before Israel’s total siege, because of Israel’s illegal policy of collective punishment, Gaza typically only has access to a few hours of electricity a day. The median age in Gaza is 18, meaning many people have no memories of life outside this cruel siege.

Israel’s violent escalation against Gaza comes after attacks within Israel on Saturday carried out by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Citing the growing violence against Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank (2023 was the deadliest year), fighters with Hamas fired rockets into Israel, breached the Gaza security barrier, and carried out a series of attacks in southern Israel. Hamas’s attacks have spawned a series of claims and counterclaims that are difficult to parse.

But it is clear that Hamas and Islamic Jihad did, in violation of international law, carry out lamentable attacks on civilians in addition to military targets. Some of the most horrifying stories come from attacks on an Israeli music festival where attendees were killed. Hamas currently has 150 hostages, including both soldiers and civilians.

Hamas’s actions have spawned universal condemnation from U.S. politicians. Israel's brutality—both its decades of apartheid and its current assault on an open air prison (both made possible by U.S. funding)—has, with a few notable exceptions, not received any condemnation. Instead, U.S. politicians are racing to register their support for the growing slaughter with rhetorical bombast, promises of further military aid, and the deliberate demonization of anyone who dissents. 

Public figures have demanded that a blacklist be created of students who support Palestinian rights, and politicians have pressured activists to cancel First Amendment-protected rallies.

The FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have reportedly detained and/or visited Palestinians in the United States.

Tweet from Abed A. Ayoub, the national executive director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)

Ahead of a demonstration by Palestinian supporters in Times Square, New York Mayor Eric Adams announced the NYPD would surveil the rally. Characterizations of pro-Palestinian protesters as representing some sort of Hamas fifth-column are becoming increasingly common.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA) spread this claim, while accusing the FBI of harassing Trump supporters and ignoring “pro-Hamas” demonstrators. Green’s social media bluster betrays a stunning ignorance of FBI surveillance. While we do not know what the FBI is currently up to, the modern FBI has devoted massive resources to surveilling the First Amendment-protected activities of Palestine supporters.

Spying on Speech

In 1979, only a handful of years after the Church Committee, the FBI opened an investigation into the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS). Although the FBI operated under the most stringent restrictions at any point in its history, for nine years the FBI gathered information on political speech. At no point did the investigation ever find any evidence of violence.

Many GUPS chapters existed solely as cultural groups on college campuses. But when they did engage in political speech, the FBI took careful note of it. For example, in 1986 during a “multi-cultural celebration of Palestinian prisoners under occupation” that consisted of a permitted rally across from the White House, FBI agents photographed attendees so that they could later identify “organizers and supporters.”

The FBI’s case file noted that FBI agents observed “Marxist and socialist groups” in attendance at the 150 person rally. 

In 1984, an oversight body within the Department of Justice designed to prevent the abuses of the Hoover-era reviewed the FBI’s application to continue the investigation. They noted that the FBI’s own justification for the investigation did not describe the group as being involved in international terrorism. Nonetheless, the DOJ’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review decided to give the bureau the benefit of the doubt. Noting they were confident the FBI must have such evidence, they allowed the investigation to continue on.

After the FBI came under congressional scrutiny for usings its foreign counterintelligence authorities to investigate international terrorism to surveil opponents of Ronald Reagan’s Central American policy, the inquiry was shut down. 

At the same time in Los Angeles, the bureau’s field office began surveilling pro-Palestinian activists. Ostensibly, the FBI’s actions were about “disrupting” Los Angeles based support for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular, Marxist-Leninist, revolutionary socialist Palestinian organization.

The FBI engaged in some of the most intrusive surveillance techniques. They obtained a wiretap order from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Yet in spite of this the FBI only found support for lawful humanitarian charities and political speech. The bureau devoted thousands of pages to documenting speech they considered “anti-Israel,” “anti-Jordanian,” “anti-[Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak,” and “anti-Reagan.” Opposing Israel’s apartheid policies, conservative Arab states, or Ronald Reagan is not a crime. 

Faced only with evidence of the First Amendment activities, FBI agents became deeply frustrated. However, under the Cold War McCarran-Walter Act, an immigrant could be deported from the U.S. if they belonged to a group that advocated “world communism.” The FBI turned over 10,000 pages of “evidence” to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who in 1987 arrested at gunpoint seven Palestinians and one Kenyan. They would be collectively known as the “Los Angeles 8.”

When testifying before Congress, FBI Director William Webster affirmed that the FBI had no evidence any of the Los Angeles 8 had committed a crime under U.S. law. Webster stated, “If these individuals had been United States citizens, there would not have been a basis for their arrest.” Michael P. Lindemann, the government’s lead lawyer for the deportation case, echoed this claim: "It goes without saying that if they were United States citizens, nothing would be applicable to them.” 

The Los Angeles 8 case illustrates the continuity between the anti-communist surveillance state set up by J. Edgar Hoover and the current counter-terrorism regime. The case began under a Cold War-era law, but as new laws targeting terrorism were passed, the FBI sought to retroactively apply them to the Los Angeles 8. When the USA Patriot Act passed after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the government refiled deportation proceedings against some of the Los Angeles 8.

The final case was dropped by President George W. Bush's administration in 2007 after two decades of continuous defeats for the government.

“Material Support for Terrorism” and Guilty By Association 

In the midst of the Los Angeles 8 saga, President Bill Clinton signed into law provisions that allowed the Secretary of State to create a blacklist of foreign terrorist organizations. Individuals giving “material support” to the blacklisted organizations could be criminally prosecuted. Non-citizens could be deported for membership in such an organization.

To be clear, it was already a crime to aid or abet criminal acts of terrorism, and immigrants could be denied entry for engaging in terrorist acts. What Clinton and Senate Republicans did was move official counterterrorism policy further away from focusing on criminal acts to a focus on guilt by association reminiscent of the McCarthy-era. 

The bill also created special courts to hear secret evidence, like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) wiretaps against the Los Angeles 8, in deportation cases of “alien terrorists.” That same year Clinton signed into law a bill stripping federal courts of their ability to review the actions of immigration courts

(NOTE: Immigration courts are administrative courts set up by the Department of Justice and are not part of the federal judiciary created by the U.S. Constitution. A collection of civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, National Lawyers Guild, Center for Constitutional Rights, and American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee had successfully raised constitutional challenges to the government’s actions against the Los Angeles 8 in federal court). 

The new blacklist of foreign terrorist organizations included multiple Palestinian groups. It’s true that all of these groups had armed wings that violated the laws of international armed conflict (as the Israeli military routinely does). They also had political wings that engaged in a wide variety of lawful activities, including in some cases humanitarian work.

Previously, courts had held that when a political organization has lawful and unlawful aims, individuals could only be penalized if they intended to further the unlawful aims of such groups. The material support statute did away with this distinction, once a bedrock of First Amendment principles.

This law not only created new ways to prosecute people, its broad net facilitated further FBI investigations of Palestinian supporters. In some cases, this criminalization of Palestinian support facilitated mass, racialized surveillance of Arab Americans writ large. 

The Clinton-era surveillance net was controversial enough that presidential contender George W. Bush condemned it from the campaign trail. During his second debate with Vice President Al Gore, Bush stated, “Arab Americans are racially profiled on what's called secret evidence. People are stopped. And we got to do something about that. My friend Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan is pushing a law to make sure that, you know, Arab Americans are treated with respect.”

'The Global War on Terrorism'

As president, Bush presided over one of the country’s worst assaults on civil liberties. His administration was loaded with neoconservatives who exploited the tragic September 11, 2001 attacks to carry out wars abroad and an expansion of the surveillance state at home.

Many of the post-9/11 War on Terror prosecutions focused not on those who attacked us, but on alleged supporters of armed Palestinian groups that had nothing to do with the attacks. Domestic counter terrorism policy would be constricted by the dictates of U.S. foreign policy. The Bush Administration downplayed potential connections to Saudi Arabia.

Senator Bob Graham, former Co-Chair of the Joint Congressional Committee, accused the FBI of covering up Saudi involvement in the attacks. Saudi Arabia was after all an ally and close business partner of the Bush family. Palestinians, the official enemy of another U.S. ally, made for a perfect scapegoat.

One of the most jarring Bush-era prosecutions was that of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The Holy Land Foundation was not accused of committing crimes against the United States or supporting acts of violence. Instead, the Palestinian-American run charity was accused of sending humanitarian aid to Palestians in the Middle East. But the U.S. government alleged this aid had gone through Hamas-run charity committees.

Months after 9/11, the FBI seized the group’s assets claiming they were terrorists. Three years later, they were indicted for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and related offenses. The first trial, in which the government was permitted to use classified evidence obtained under FISA, resulted in a mistrial. A second trial, during which an Israeli intelligence agent was allowed to testify anonymously, resulted in a widely condemned conviction

In 2015, I filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the FBI about a number of Palestinian advocacy groups. In spite of evidence to the contrary, the FBI denied it kept files on any of the groups with one exception: the nonviolent direct action organization International Solidarity Movement (ISM). In spite of acknowledging that it held files, the FBI buried my request in a bureaucratic blackhole until I finally brought a lawsuit compelling their release. (The released documents formed the basis of a 2020 article I wrote for The Intercept.)

The documents revealed at least two major investigations into ISM. The first was a domestic terrorism investigation predicated on the ISM’s possible violation of the Neutrality Act, a law that dates back to President George Washington. The documents show the FBI devoted energy to proving the non-violent Palestinian solidarity group were either anarchists or associated with anarchists.

In its justification for the investigation, the bureau mentioned the group had “anti-capitalist, anti-global” beliefs—a regurgitation of the FBI’s domestic terrorsim definition of “anarchist extremists.” In spite of a nationwide investigation, the FBI never produced any evidence that resulted in a prosecution.

The second investigation was carried out under the FBI’s far looser national security guidelines and focused on two individuals. The FBI investigation was closed due to a lack of evidence and concluded the two activists were exclusively engaged in political speech. 

The FBI’s pursuit of GUPS, the Los Angeles 8, the Holy Land Foundation, and the ISM are by no means the definitive account of the FBI’s surveillance of Palestine supporters. But they are some of the most stunning examples of how the FBI has manipulated efforts to thwart international terrorism to spy on domestic political speech about Palestine and criminalize humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.

As the current massacre in Gaza escalates and its U.S. supporters escalate their attacks on domestic Palestinian supporters, we should be concerned that the FBI will be up to its same old tricks.