Sunday, March 4, 2007

Millions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid have been given in the past several years to two Palestinian universities — one of them controlled by Hamas — that have participated in the advocacy, support or glorification of terrorism.

The funding — principally in scholarships to individual students — is being eyed by several members of Congress and their aides, who say it may violate U.S. law.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided more than $140,000 in assistance to the Hamas-controlled Islamic University in Gaza — including scholarships to 49 of its students — since Congress changed the law in 2004 to restrict aid to entities or individuals “involved in or advocating terrorist activity.”

No U.S. assistance was directed to Islamic University last year, but USAID continues to fund multimillion-dollar programs through American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), which is building a high-tech facility for the school. U.S. law requires that any recipient of U.S. aid have no association with terrorists.

USAID also gave $2.3 million in aid last year to Al-Quds University, which has student groups affiliated with designated terrorist organizations on campus and last month held a weeklong celebration of the man credited with designing and building the first suicide belts more than a decade ago.

“It is outrageous that U.S. taxpayer dollars are going toward institutions that support terrorists,” said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

“These loopholes must be closed so that taxpayer funds are used for their intended purpose and not to subsidize terrorism and the promotion of hatred toward Israel and the United States.”

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat and chairwoman of the committee responsible for USAID funding, said, “It goes without saying that U.S. taxpayer dollars should absolutely never be used for advocating or honoring terrorist activity. Support for terrorists and terrorism in any shape or form is unacceptable.”

USAID adamantly denies that it has violated any laws.

“Every grant we give, every bit of assistance we provide, we do in a way that is fully compliant with the law,” said a USAID official, who agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity.

In the case of Islamic University, the official said, USAID vetted the school president, the vice president of academic affairs and the dean of the library. It provided $12,000 worth of computers and materials to the school’s library.

Students are vetted for connections to terrorism before being granted scholarships, the official added, but, “We don’t follow every student and track every meeting they go to.” Unlike other U.S. aid recipients, the scholarship students have not been required to sign pledges not to participate in terrorism.

The latest congressional interest in USAID’s funding in the West Bank and Gaza was triggered by a report from Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), a pro-Israel group that monitors the Palestinian press.

Included in the report were translations of several Palestinian newspaper articles that discuss the activities of student chapters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad at Al-Quds University and other Palestinian schools assisted by USAID since 2005. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

The USAID official did not deny that student groups affiliated with terrorist organizations were on campuses of schools assisted by the agency, but stressed that such organizations receive minimal support from the schools and are not part of “the official administrative structure.”

Aides to several congressmen said they were most troubled by USAID assistance to Islamic University in Gaza City, which is openly controlled by Hamas leaders.

The organization held a two-day conference in 2005 on the “martyrdom” of former Hamas spiritual leader and founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was killed in an Israeli air strike in 2004. Sheik Yassin founded the school in 1978.

Sheik Yassin and former Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi used Islamic University as a base, as has Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Hamas-led Palestinian government and a member of the school’s board of trustees.

Sixteen Islamic University lecturers and teachers are elected Hamas members of the Palestinian legislature. In 2005, 78 percent of the student council vote went to Hamas, according to a Palestinian newspaper article provided by Palestinian Media Watch.

When challenged by Congress last year on its assistance to the school, USAID noted that the funding was not renewed last year. Nonetheless, the agency is providing millions in grants to ANERA, which is building a high-tech facility in Gaza City for the university. California-based Intel Corp. is underwriting the project.

In a document USAID sent to Congress last year, USAID wrote that ANERA “is required to ensure that no assistance is provided to terrorist organizations or individuals associated with terrorist activities, regardless of whether or not the activity involves [U.S. government] funding.”

Also causing congressional concern is a PMW’s report that Al-Quds University last month held a weeklong celebration honoring Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas leader known as “the shahid [martyr] engineer.” He is credited with creating the first suicide belts in the mid-1990s and training the next generation of suicide bomb makers.

The opening event, as reported by a Palestinian newspaper and found in the PMW report, included a speech by university administrator Yusuf Dhiyab, “who discussed shahids and the mark that the shahids left on the history of the Palestinian nation and how they succeeded in uniting the nation.”

In September, USAID announced an “extraordinary one-time” issuance of 2,000 scholarships for Palestinian students attending Al-Quds University at a total cost of $2.2 million, according to USAID. Simultaneously, USAID provided $100,000 in “in-kind assistance” to Al-Quds University.

In a written statement, USAID said Al-Quds University requested emergency assistance last summer, and the $2.3 million was offered because “strong U.S. support existed for assistance to moderate Palestinian leaders.”

The statement singled out Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh as “one such prominent and respected figure.”

But Mr. Nusseibeh appeared on the Al-Jazeera satellite channel in 2002 with Hamas political bureau chief Khalid Mashaal and the mother of a suicide bomber, according to a transcript provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

“When I hear the words of Umm Nidal, I recall the [Koranic] verse stating that ‘Paradise lies under the feet of mothers,’ ” he said, according to MEMRI. “All respect is due to this mother; it is due to every Palestinian mother and every female Palestinian who is a Jihad fighter on this land.”

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