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Charities helped fund Hamas, witness testifies at terror trial

The ex-administration official also owns up to not visiting the agencies he cited as aiding the Palestinian group.

July 26, 2007|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — A key witness in the government's prosecution of five men for alleged links to terrorism testified Wednesday that overseas charities had openly served as an important and reliable source of funding for Hamas.

But on cross-examination, a defense attorney seemed to undercut former Bush administration official Matthew Levitt by getting him to acknowledge that he had visited just one of the many charities that he said supported the militant Palestinian organization.

Authorities are attempting to prove that the now-defunct Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development and five former officials ignored a U.S. ban on support for Hamas by funneling money to the group through the overseas charities, known as zakat committees. The group Levitt visited in the West Bank town of Bethlehem is not named in the Justice Department's case.

Officials of the Holy Land Foundation, which was the nation's largest Islamic charity until it was closed by the Treasury Department in 2001, have denied that they financially aided Hamas or supported its terrorist acts.

Levitt, who was the deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department until January, spent several hours Wednesday describing the history of Hamas, its use of social programs to build popular support, and its clashes with secular Muslim groups inside and outside the Palestinian territories within Israel.

Over the objections of defense attorneys, U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish permitted federal prosecutors to show -- and Levitt to describe -- the results of a Hamas suicide attack on a bus and a videotape of a kindergarten graduation of children dressed up as armed militants.

But it was Levitt's discussion of Hamas' fundraising methods that was important to the prosecution's charge that Holy Land and the defendants helped finance terrorism by sending millions of dollars to zakat committees.

"Zakat committees are Hamas' most effective tool. Period," said Levitt, the government's first witness. An author and onetime FBI analyst, Levitt told the jury that his knowledge of Hamas and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was based on numerous trips to the Middle East. Defense attorneys had previously questioned his credibility but were unsuccessful Monday in challenging his appearance as an expert witness.

Under questioning Wednesday by Nancy Hollander, an attorney for Holy Land's founder Shukri Abu Baker, Levitt said that he had not been to any of the zakat committees he cited as having been linked to Hamas terrorists.

Levitt also said he did not know that the offices of one of the zakat committees cited in the indictment displayed a photograph of Yasser Arafat, the late chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization whose group had been a bloody rival of Hamas for years.

Hollander also questioned Levitt's background and credentials, noting that he had briefly worked for a consul general of Israel, has several times spoken at events hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish Federation and has had a long association with the Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank whose founder was also a member of the politically powerful AIPAC.

Holy Land officials have maintained that their organization was shut down largely as a result of years of political pressure placed on the United States by Israel and American Jewish groups.

Levitt's cross-examination continues today.

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greg.krikorian@latimes.com

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