Ghassan Elashi was born in 1953 in the Gaza Strip in Palestine, the child of a refugee mother who had been forced out of her hometown of Yaffa five years earlier. He went on to live first in Egypt, then England before finally immigrating to the United States where earned a master’s degree at the University of Miami.
After moving to California to raise his family, Elashi became one of the founders of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development in 1989, which was originally focused on humanitarian aid to Palestine but went on to provide humanitarian aid to places like Turkey, India, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and even the United States after floods in Iowa and the Oklahoma City bombing. Within a few years, The Holy Land Foundation had become the largest Muslim charity in the United States with an annual budget of about 14 million dollars.
Throughout the 1990s, Elashi and The Holy Land Foundation were the subject of extensive government surveillance, but it wasn’t until a Rose Garden press conference on December 4, 2001 that George W. Bush announced that the Holy Land Foundation had been shut down and its assets had been seized, asserting that the Foundation was a front for Hamas. Two years later, Elashi was arrested at his family home on counts of conspiring to provide material support to Hamas by delivering millions of dollars in aid to Palestinian distribution centers called zakat committees. The Holy Land Foundation has maintained that they provided aid to Gaza through zakat committees—the same committees used by the United Nations, the Red Cross, and indeed the US government agency USAID to get aid into Gaza.
Elashi and the other Holy Land Five defendants’ first trial in 2007—which involved two months of testimony and nineteen days of jury deliberation—ended in a hung jury. After the government dropped many of their original charges, the case was re-tried a year later using an anonymous expert testimony—believed to be a first in US judicial history—as well as classified evidence which the defendants were not allowed to review. The new jury deliberated for eight days and returned a guilty verdict. In 2009, Elashi was sentenced to 65 years in prison and is currently held at the Communications Management Unit in Marion, Illinois. The Supreme Court refused to consider their appeal.