Rasmieh Odeh

A Palestinian woman and well-respected organizer in Chicago has been charged with lying to immigration authorities about her background when she applied for citizenship in the United States. If convicted, she faces the possibility of being imprisoned for up to ten years and being deported.

Rasmieh Odeh, who is sixty-six years-old, was arrested by Department of Homeland Security agents during the morning of October 22. She was brought before US Magistrate Judge Mason. Mason released her on $15,000 cash bond. She was ordered to appear in federal court by November 1 in Detroit, where she first lived.

Odeh has a past history with Palestinian resistance fighters engaged in militant activities against the Israeli occupation. According to the indictment against her, she was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which the US designated as a terrorist organization in 1995.

US government officials maintain lying on immigration documents poses risks to national security, but that does not explain why the government is bringing this case against Odeh now.

Joe Iosbaker, an antiwar organizer with the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, had his home raided by the FBI in September 2010. Iosbaker, his wife and 21 others in the Midwest have been under a grand jury investigation for three years. They’ve refused to appear before a grand jury for questioning, but the Justice Department has not issued any indictments. It has instead kept the cloud of an investigation hanging over the heads of these activists as agents continue to search for evidence of material support for terrorism in the antiwar and international solidarity work with Colombians and Palestinians.

Iosbaker suspects the case against Odeh is connected to this investigation.

“We have been aware that the US Attorney in Chicago has not dropped the case against the 23 antiwar activists,” Iosbaker told Firedoglake. “This has been confirmed, reconfirmed and reconfirmed for us throughout the three years since we were subpoenaed and refused to appear before the grand jury.”

“Here is a woman, a longtime activist in the Palestinian community, who has been living in the United States for twenty years. She’s been a model citizen contributing and serving her community. And, suddenly, ten years after she received citizenship, they scrutinize her,” Iosbaker stated. “They never would have looked at her at all had it not been for their investigation of the 23 antiwar activists, including Hatem Abudayyeh, who is her co-worker.”

The Israeli government arrested and imprisoned Odeh on March 1, 1969. She was arrested for her involvement, with four other individuals, in bombings that occurred in February 1969 (one in a supermarket in Jerusalem and the other in the courtyard of the British Consulate). Two were apparently killed in the supermarket.

She and the four others were charged with crimes related to the bombings by the Israeli Defense Forces and convicted by a military court known to have a history of depriving Palestinians due process rights. She served more than 10 years in prison before the Israeli government released her to Lebanon “as part of a prisoner exchange with the PFLP.”

Odeh came to the US twenty years ago. She became a naturalized citizen after ten years. In the time that she’s been in the US, she has focused on community organizing.

Abudayyeh, the director of the Arab-American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago, said she’s been the associate director at AAAN since 2004 and has been responsible for day-to-day operations. He said she’s been the coordinator of an Arab women’s committee that has focused on leadership development, organizing, training and consciousness raising in the realms of civil liberties and immigrant rights.

Odeh has done a “lot of personal and political empowerment work,” he added. She has continued refugee work she started in Lebanon and Jordan. She has built off her history as a practicing attorney in Jordan, who focused on women’s rights. She is a “stalwart and an icon in the community,” someone who is well-known across the Arab and Muslim communities of Chicago, according to Abudayyeh.

Like Iosbaker, he sees a connection between the investigation against him and 22 other activists. Assistant US Attorney Barry Jonas, who has been in charge of the investigation into the activists, was present in the courtroom when Odeh came before the judge.

“She’s a prominent Palestinian organizer and activist,” Abudayyeh declared. “She’s being targeted because she’s a Palestinian. She’s being targeted because she’s an Arab. She’s being targeted because of who she is and what she represents,” which is years of organizing and activism on behalf of social justice and the rights of Palestinians.

Odeh was featured in a documentary produced in 2004 by Palestinian director Buthina Canaan Khoury, “Women in Struggle.” It highlighted four ex-prisoners who had become involved in fighting for Palestinian independence. (The film can be watched here.)

In the film, she describes being interrogated by Israeli soldiers, who brought her father into a room, and tried to force him to sleep with her. “That was one of the worst moments,” she says.

The soldiers also brought her into a room where they were torturing a young man with electric shocks. She was naked and forced to watch as they killed him with the shocks.

She also recounts being stripped naked and displayed in front of young men to force them to speak. The soldiers would tie her up, her legs and her arms. She was beaten severely to the point where her hands were going numb and appeared paralyzed.

Odeh states, “This increased my hatred of those who were responsible.”

A fishing expedition has been ongoing and the Justice Department has thus far been unable to come up with anything to pin on the activists, but that does not mean the investigation will be over any time soon.

Jonas was involved in convicting five individuals for their work with the Holy Land Foundation, a foundation that was the largest Islamic charity in the US before it was shut down because the US government claimed money for Palestinians was going to Hamas.

Iosbaker attended a lecture by Jonas at Depaul’s College of Law in Chicago in February. He asked Jonas about the “statutory of limitations for the investigation.” Jonas said the Justice Department had eight years for a terrorism investigation.

The suspicion activists share is understandable. Back in May 2012, something similar happened when the government went after longtime Chicano activist Carlos Montes, who has been active in the antiwar, education and civil rights movements, with bogus charges against him for purchasing a gun. The allegations involved an event that had happened 43 years ago when he was a student convicted of a misdemeanor for assaulting a police officer during a demonstration.

Montes worked with the 23 activists when they organized a protest at the Republican National Convention in 2008.

The charges the government tried to bring were eventually dropped at trial. Iosbaker believes it was all a part of the government’s targeting of him and the 22 other activists.

Additionally, Iosbaker suggested, “It seems to us that they have been unable to bring indictments. When we were raided, we gathered an enormous amount of political support.”

“It’s also our opinion that the attack on us was a stretch for the Department of Justice. It was the first time they had gone after political activists and tried to pin us with the crime of providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations” and “criminalize antiwar and international solidarity activism,” he added.

The government has been unable to move forward with indicting them so, in the meantime, it appears what the government is doing is “looking for anyone in our circles that they can call a criminal, that they can indict for something criminal.”

It has the potential to be effective, even if the activists are not charged with crimes. It can sow fear in the community and make those who are in the broader community shy away from involvement in political organizing.

In May 2011, Abudayyeh went to get money from an ATM and learned that his bank account had been frozen. He later found out his wife’s account had been frozen too. The US Treasury Department was apparently involved and once the accounts were unfrozen, his bank, TCF, shut down the family’s accounts and had him take his money to another bank. The government has presumably been investigating all who are associated with him, including Odeh.

Furthermore, it is worth recalling that up until 2008 the African National Congress (ANC) of which Nelson Mandela was a member was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. President Ronald Reagan’s administration had the ANC placed on the State Department’s list. That means Mandela engaged in resistance that was once considered terrorism by the US government. But the US has significantly shifted its view of Mandela and now applauds him and others who fought against apartheid in South Africa.

As it did for the South African apartheid regime, the US supports Israel’s occupation with military assistance. It similarly views all Palestinians fighting back against this occupation as terrorists.

Do we empathize with Odeh’s decision to hide her past so she could have a better life and become a productive US citizen or do we support the government for displaying zero tolerance for a person who Israeli Defense Forces convicted of terrorism? Do we support the advancement by the Justice Department of political cases such as this?

Like black South African resistance fighters, Odeh and others believed they were being violently colonized by Israeli forces and because war was being waged against them they needed to fight back. However, since Israel holds the monopoly on force and has had the United States as its loyal ally, they were the ones held accountable for acts deemed to be terrorism.

For more on Odeh, here’s a video put together for an award she was given by the Chicago Cultural Alliance.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."