Noor Elashi is the 23-year-old daughter of Holy Land Foundation co-founder Ghassan Elashi, who found out only today that he will be sentenced in May following his conviction last November; he's looking at 15 years to life in prison, after having been among those convicted of donating to Hamas following a 2007 mistrial. (Ghassan was also convicted in 2005 of funding terrorism.) Noor, a University of North Texas graduate and former reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram profiled in our October 31, 2007, cover story, is also part of a new group called Free the Holy Land Five -- which, tomorrow, holds a film screening of its own at the Richardson Civic Center.
At 2 p.m., Free the Holy Land Five will screen Arna's Children, a 2003 documentary about the Israeli Defense Forces' shuttering of a children's theater in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, as well as presentations by Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders and producer Jen Marlowe. Elashi, who in the fall will attend graduate school in creative non-fiction at the New School in New York, spoke with Unfair Park about Free the Holy Land Five, her father and his case, and how she believes it relates to the overall situation of the Palestinian people. It's after the jump.
What's Free the Holy Land Five and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
Its purpose is to keep the plight of these five political prisoners alive and remind local residents and Americans in general that they're still in prison and shouldn't be there. The main reason they're there is because they saved Palestinian lives, and, unfortunately, that's become illegal in America. It's sad because now people are thinking twice about giving charity, especially to the Middle East. A few concerned citizens and close friends of the family launched this group after the convictions in November. One has known my dad for 15 years, and another is just your typical Jane Doe white American who heard of this case and decided she wanted to help out because these people are being singled out for being Palestinian at the wrong time -- in the post-9/11 hysteria.
Tell me about the event and why you chose Arna's Children.
The catchphrase we're using is "Remember Gaza." Any aware American would remember what happened a few months ago and how 1,300 Palestinians were just dead within months and basically murdered. What the Holy Land Foundation's mission was was to help these type of people, the people who were so unjustly treated and massacred for being who they were.
The film is about this woman born in Palestine before 1948, and afterward she served in the Israeli Army and quickly realized she wanted to fight the occupation after witnessing firsthand what they were going through - the illegal settlements, the home demolishment, etc. She opened up this theater in Jenin, and it was the only means of self-expression. It was shut down, and the film follows what happened to a few of the children afterward. ... It's a way to remind people that the Palestinian struggle is international, and the Holy Land Five are part of it.
Trying to convince Americans to get behind a cause like Free the Holy Land Five seems like a tall order, given the fact that your father has been convicted of funding terrorism. What do you think think you'll be able to accomplish?
I think for anybody who has no background about Palestine and the Palestinian issue, they're not going to be able to fathom what's going on here. But just like with any major issue, if they know the context in the Holy Land case and the Palestinian struggle ... once you know the historical context, then you'll start looking at things with a more critical eye. Most people are pretty clueless. Their image of Palestinians is pretty much what they see on FOX News. That's why we're doing this outreach.
When I do talk about the issue, a lot of people do listen. At the end of the day it's not a Palestinian issue, an Israeli issue, it's not even an American issue. It's a human issue.
In terms of the Palestinian context and raising awareness about it, there are clearly issues of poverty and oppression that people may not know about, but for a lot of people, at the end of the day those on the Hamas side are still firing rockets into Israel, and it's hard to get around that in terms of sympathy for the Palestinian cause. And your father was convicted of supporting that.
They were falsely convicted of supporting Hamas -- not a single cent went to Hamas. They were nothing more than humanitarians. If you attended the trial, it was so transparent what was going on. It was a very obvious fear tactic the prosecution used to convince the jury that they were funding terrorism even though there wasn't any evidence.
Your father was initially serving an 80-month sentence for an earlier conviction. Where is he being kept while he awaits sentencing?
All five of them are being held at Seagoville
Many people were glad to see the government prevail in this case and have no sympathy for your father and the others convicted in the Holy Land case. What would you say to those people?
I feel sorry for them, because once you dig deeper and do minimal research you'll find out the truth -- and the truth is that the verdict was purely wrong. I would just reiterate that all they had to do is attend the trial and realize there wasn't a single piece of evidence that linked my dad and the other men to violence. Looking forward, I really have hope that these men are not going to serve life sentences. I have hope that we're going to win this appeal.
How often do you see your father?
All the families get to visit once or twice a week for a couple of hours. I pretty much see my dad every week. He is very strong, he's basically reading the Holy Koran, and that's what's keeping his spirit alive. He tells me, "If I have to spend the rest of my life in prison because I fed a holy child, then that's just my honor."
How's your family doing?
They're hanging in there. We all know this is basically a test and we're not the first people who have gone through this type of injustice - that the Japanese suffered very similar circumstances, as well as the Italians and the Germans. Now it's our turn. A lot of people might think we would be learning from history, but obviously that's not happening. Political prisoners exist in this country as of 2009.
How has this experience impacted you personally?
It's definitely made me look at life very differently. I haven't become more cynical, but I've realized the world is a very cruel and harsh place. But it's also made me work harder for everything that I want - it has taught me that nothing comes simply in life. In my every day life, it has been extremely distracting. It started when I was in high school and it was so distracting for me. I've felt a deep sense of displacement -- displacement in my own country, a betrayal by my own president at the time. It has also made me feel very very proud to be the daughter of a hero, a political prisoner who is in the situation that he is because he saved lives.
After your father's arrest, you said you were known in the neighborhood as "the Holy Land family." What has it been like since November, when the verdict was handed down and you actually became the daughter of a convicted funder of terrorism?
I've gotten several negative e-mails from people I don't know, through the Web site, people who don't know my family and blindly labeled us as terrorist supporters and told me to get out of the country. But everyone I've actually known -- from people I went to school with and worked with to friends I've made -- have been very supportive and don't look at my family differently. They know this is just a setback and one day the truth will come out.
You mentioned that the case has been distracting for you -- you left your job at the Star-Telegram to focus entirely on his case. What has it been like trying to be there for your family while pursuing your own individual goals?
I've been thinking about graduate school for a couple years now, and everytime I'd want to start the whole application process, something would come up. First it was the trial, then it was the retrial. It felt like a neverending nightmare. And, of course, the conviction was not the end. I didn't rest after that. Right now I still feel stuck, but I know there's not much more I can do. It's up to the attorneys to follow through with the appeal. I decided to devote the next several years to document the case [in a memoir]. I'm going to tell the story, and once Americans read the story in a narrative form, I feel like they'll relate to it and be sympathetic.
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So your career and family situation have basically become intertwined.
Yeah, definitely. I've felt like I had to stay around because it was the right thing to do. I couldn't leave my family at that point in time. Because my dad's in prison, I have to do a lot of what he used to do, like take my brother with Down syndrome to his speech therapy lessions. There are three boys and three girls in my family, and it's been more distraction and responsibility for all of us.
What does your father say to you about your efforts with Free the Holy Land Five, and what about your decision to go to graduate school?
He's very supportive of anything I do -- he's very proud of me. Writing this book is a big deal. It's going to be about him, my grandmother and I all feeling displaced. He's very supportive.