By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The advertisements on the back of DART buses displayed a photograph of a cherubic child and asked, "Is it wrong to feed a Palestinian child?" Hmm. No, that wouldn't be wrong, but sending the money as a reward to families of Palestinian suicide bombers might be, and some Dallas motorists apparently thought that's what DART was advertising.
Last week, DART quietly removed the mobile advertisements after receiving complaints from people who questioned how appropriate it was for DART to help the Richardson-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The ads apparently were removed so quietly that nobody even bothered to tell the foundation.
"What you're telling me is news to me," says Dalal Mohamed, emergency-relief facilitator for the foundation. "Nobody has told us. We haven't received any correspondence. I am very shocked that you're calling me telling me this. We've received no correspondence. I mean, I have no way of responding to you other than to say I'm shocked if they in fact did this because, number one, we're in a binding contract; number two, give us the decency of speaking to us; number three, if they are listening to special-interest groups, I think that they're not acting very responsibly."
The foundation, which bills itself as a charitable organization raising money for hungry children, has been accused by Israel of sending money to widows and children of Palestinian terrorists and is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice. The foundation advertises on buses in other cities and through other media and has successfully raised millions of dollars in donations during the last few years. The most recent tax returns immediately available show that the group raised nearly $20 million in charitable contributions from 1995 through 1999. Before last week, the foundation was paying $550 a month for each of the DART ads, which "only ran on about six buses," a DART spokesman says.
Greg Duval, general manager in Dallas of Obie Media, a national advertising agency that places ads on buses, confirmed that Holy Land Foundation advertisements were removed last week at DART's request.
"I don't know their status, what type of organization they are, but those were removed at the request of DART," he says.
DART received complaints about the foundation ads before the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., says DART spokesman Morgan Lyons, but the number of complaints about the Holy Land Foundation advertisements increased after the attacks, prompting DART to remove them. DART management actually made the decision to pull the advertisements after they learned the FBI included the foundation in a "list of organizations they were following," he says.
"We just thought it was time to bring the ads down," Lyons says. "That, coupled with the growing number of complaints about the ads."
As usual, the FBI declined to comment on the Holy Land Foundation or anything else.
"We just don't have a comment on that group now. We don't make comments on groups, so if it came out in a press release or something, which it has not to my knowledge, we just don't have a comment on it," an FBI spokesman says.
A State Department official says the department recommended last year that the U.S. Agency for International Development "terminate its relationship" with the Holy Land Foundation because of alleged links to terrorist groups. After "extensive" consultation with government agencies, the State Department decided that maintaining a relationship with the foundation "would be contrary to the national defense and foreign-policy interests of the United States," an official statement from the department says.
"In December 1999, the Department of State acknowledged in a filing in the U.S. District Court in Washington that the U.S. government has been investigating the [foundation] for alleged financial ties to [terrorist group] Hamas. I would refer additional questions to the FBI," the statement says. "The department did not make this request lightly. We made it only after careful deliberation within the department and on the advice of other agencies."
Mohamed denies that the foundation does anything but good work for poor children throughout the world.
"The Holy Land Foundation is a humanitarian organization, a nonprofit charitable organization that feeds Palestinian children as well as children in need across the country and the world," she says.
She says that she is aware of the "false allegations" that have circulated about the foundation, but that their mission has nothing to do with helping terrorists. She suspects that "special interests" are responsible for tarnishing the foundation's name and says it is disheartening that they would choose this particular time to do it.
"Regarding feeding the children of suicide bombers, we feed children in need regardless of who they are, just like here in the United States. When a child comes to receive food stamps or welfare, we do not ask them their family history, we just see if there is a need," she says. "If there is a child who is hungry, we feed that child."
In a statement posted on the group's Web site, Shukri Abu Baker, foundation president, adamantly denies that they have ever helped terrorists or that any accusation of a terrorist link has ever been substantiated.