Palestinians Arrested in Los Angeles Witch-hunt

by Judith Gabriel
published in MER145

It was the West Coast, not the West Bank, but for many Palestinians, the unfolding dragnet scenario had an all-too-familiar ring.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of January 26, agents of the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and local police arrested eight Palestinians and the Kenyan-born wife of one of them.

“War on Terrorism Hits L.A.,” a banner headline in the Herald-Examiner proclaimed. And the nine were treated like international criminals of the worst order. Shackles on their arms, legs and waist, they were denied food and water for nine hours, placed in cells with lights glaring round the clock and not allowed to shower. Two days later there were led -- still shackled -- before an immigration judge (and the media) for their initial hearing on charges of distributing subversive literature.

Many of those arrested were long-term US residents. Khader Musa Hamide, 32, was born in Bethlehem and came to the United States in 1971. He expected to learn on January 27 if his application for citizenship had been granted. Those who knew him, including Los Angeles City Councilman Robert Farrell and James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, described Hamide’s political involvement as “mainstream American.” He was part of a newly-formed Arab-American Democratic Club and had served as a delegate to the Rainbow Coalition.

Hamide’s wife, Julie Mungai, 28, was arrested with him. For most of 1986, the couple lived -- unknowingly -- under the close scrutiny of an FBI counterterrorism agent who had moved into the apartment next to theirs in suburban Glendale. FBI agents and informers tracked Hamide and other targeted members of the Palestinian community to a round of social and cultural events.

Also arrested were Aiad Barakat, 26, originally from Jenin in the West Bank, a partner in a construction firm; Michel Shehadeh, 30, a journalism student at California State University at Long Beach; Nairn Sharif, 26, originally from Khalil (Hebron), a former engineering student; Amjad Mustafa Obeid, 23, and his brother, Ayman, 24, both engineering students at Long Beach. Two others arrested in the sweeps were charged only with visa violations, and had their cases severed.

An FBI source told the Los Angeles Times that the investigation had begun shortly after the April 1986 US bombing raids on Libya. He cited threats of reprisal attributed to George Habash, the Syrian-based leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). But the ten-month investigation turned up no evidence of illegal actions against which the FBI could launch criminal proceedings.

“There has been no claim of violence against any of these people,” said attorney Leonard Weinglass. “They have been investigated, they have been overheard on electronic surveillance, their mail has been intercepted, and after an exhaustive FBI investigation, they came up with nothing.”

The FBI then turned the case over to the INS, which initiated deportation proceedings. The government dusted off Section 241 of the McCarran-Walter Act, which makes it a deportable offense to be a member or affiliate of an organization which distributes literature advocating “the economic international and governmental doctrines of world communism or the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship through any written or printed publications…”

The publications in question are the English-language Democratic Palestine and the Arabic Al-Hadaf (The Target), both affiliated with the Popular Front. The government has indicated that among its evidence are photographs of Hamide and Barakat picking up packages containing Al-Hadaf at Los Angeles International Airport.

Said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Mark Rosenbaum, “they’re being prosecuted for ideas, beliefs and thoughts of a magazine for which none have been writers or editors.” The detainees have categorically denied membership in the PFLP.

Within hours of the arrests, local activists set up an ad hoc Committee for Justice to coordinate media and legal matters. A joint legal team took shape, headed by former US attorney general Ramsey Clark and Leonard Weinglass. Arab-American organizations joined with civil rights groups to protest the arrests.

Abdeen Jabara, national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), asserted that the LA investigation flew in the face of repeated FBI assurances to ADC that it had ceased political surveillance of Arab-Americans and Arabs in the US.

The arrests stunned the Arab-American community, but the full impact did not come until a secret INS document was leaked by “anonymous sources” on February 5. The May 1986 document, “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan,” outlined how “suspected terrorists” could be arrested on nebulous charges, held without bond and deported on the basis of secret evidence -- a paradigm strikingly similar to the Los Angeles case.

The document is a blueprint for mass registration by nationality and expedited deportation of non-immigrant aliens “engaged in support of terrorism.” It lists the numbers and status of “selected aliens” from eight countries: Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iran -- all of them Middle Eastern.

The plan calls for the round-up and incarceration of up to 5,000 aliens in tents at a site near Oakdale, Louisiana. Water, sewer, gas and electricity are ready for hookup at the site, the document indicates, and fence materials are stored nearby. The surrounding community is reportedly “receptive.”

In the furor that resulted, the INS quickly denied that the document was anything more than a proposal, the product of “brain-storming” sessions by several agencies. INS Assistant Commissioner John F. Shaw told ADC’s Jabara that the plan represented the government’s need to be prepared to handle “state-supported terrorism” from abroad.

Shaw dismissed the document’s parallels to the Los Angeles case as “remarkable coincidences” and claimed copies of the plan had never been distributed to the Los Angeles or any other field office.

It wasn’t the first time that government investigations had targeted Arab-Americans. Linda Lotz, field secretary for the American Friends Service Committee, pointed to “Operation Boulder” beginning in 1972, in which the FBI and CIA coordinated data about Arab-American leaders and associations. There was a second wave of investigations dating from 1980.

The February 17 bond determination hearing got off to a tense start. Supporters staged a vigil outside the Federal Building, punctuated by a brief shouting match involving a handful of Jewish Defense League supporters. Upstairs, amid extreme security measures, only seven attorneys -- one for each detainee -- and 10 media representatives were allowed in the cramped hearing room. (US Representative Mervyn Dymally, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was refused entry.)

The besieged mood lifted as it became apparent that Immigration Judge Roy J. Daniels had refused to buy the government’s claim that the respondents -- as they are called in immigration proceedings -- were bond flight risks, or presented a threat to national security. Judge Daniels declined to hear secret testimony from the two government witnesses. One was an FBI agent under strict orders from US Attorney General Edwin Meese to present classified information “to the judge only.” The second was an informant known to all the respondents and who feared for her life if she testified publicly, the prosecuting attorney claimed.

Judge Daniels refused to consider -- or even open -- a 45-page FBI report on the PFLP proffered by the prosecution. (A copy of the report secured by the Los Angeles Times was dismissed by one analyst as “shoddy” and based on secondary sources. The report made no reference to any of the defendants.)

One by one, Judge Daniels ordered the defendants released, five on their own recognizance, three on bonds ranging from $500 to $3,000. The deportation hearings were continued until April 28. Throughout the halls of government -- from Los Angeles City Hall to the Capitol itself -- the push is on for an inquiry. In late February, Arab-American leaders met with Congressman Don Edwards (D-California) chair of the House Civil and Constitutional Rights Subcommittee which has oversight responsibility for the INS and domestic terrorism programs. “He has a lot to say with respect to what I consider to be the gestapo-like tactics used in rounding-up the students,” said David Sadd of the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA), which, along with representatives of the ADC and the Council of Presidents of Arab-American Organizations, has conferred with Edwards in his preliminary investigation.

“This is old fashioned Arab-bashing,” said ACLU’s Rosenbaum. “And I think there are officials in the government who are using INS as it has historically been used -- as a henchman of the government. They want to stop Arab thought, Arab belief, Arab discussion of issues in this country. What [this case] said to Arabs in this country is ‘shut up…shut up or get out of here, you’re not to be part of the American dialogue.’ I think the US government for the first time thinks it has a Palestinian policy by moving against these young people.”

Arab-Americans saw the broad-based support for the defendants as one positive outgrowth of the case. Sadd said he was “pleased at the role played by Jewish attorneys and journalists” whose outrage and support had helped “engender a good spirit -- something we haven’t usually had.”

At the same time, the case has already exacted its heavy toll: those arrested in Los Angeles have been effectively silenced, at least for the present. And while many observers see new strength in the robust, broad-based civil liberties coalition’s protest of the excesses of “La Migra” -- as Hispanics have long called the INS -- others see a tendency to play down underlying political issues.

“We have actually caught [the government] in the act,” said defense attorney Hudson. “What we do over the next eight to ten weeks can be decisive in putting a stop to this plan. What we do now really matters probably as much as anything has for a long time in the peace and justice movement.”

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