Downtown Islamic Center Backer Donated to Hamas-Linked Group

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
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    Site of the Park51 Islamic community center.

    One of the investors in a proposed Islamic center near ground zero is a Long Island medical clinic owner whose expressions of sympathy for Palestinians included a donation to a charity later shut down for links to Hamas.

    The developer leading the project confirmed Friday that Hisham Elzanaty, 51, is among the members of a real estate partnership that paid $4.8 million last year for the vacant clothing store that is to be torn down and replaced by a cultural center and mosque.

    The partnership's general manager, Sharif El-Gamal, confirmed Elzanaty's role in response to a media report about his reputed involvement.

    "All of these investors are committed, as I am, not to receive funding from any organization that supports terrorism or is hostile to America," El-Gamal said in a statement.

    Reached by telephone, Elzanaty declined to speak immediately with The Associated Press on Friday, but said he may have something to say later.

    El-Gamal has so-far declined to reveal the names of his other financial backers, but has said the eight-member group is diverse and includes Jews and Christians.

    Those involved with the Islamic Center proposal have come under intense scrutiny from groups opposed to the project, and critics point to a donation Elzanaty made to the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development a decade ago as evidence that its backers secretly harbor extremist views.

    Tax records show that Elzanaty gave $6,050 to the foundation in 1999. At the time, it was the largest Islamic charity in the U.S. It raised millions of dollars from Americans in the 1990s, telling donors the money would fund schools, orphanages and social welfare programs.

    Two years after Elzanaty made the donation, the U.S. government froze the foundation's assets and accused it of acting as a fundraiser for Hamas, which was labeled a terrorist organization by President Clinton in 1995.

    The foundation and some of its leaders were indicted in 2004 on charges of supporting Hamas. Five were ultimately convicted.

    A New York television station, Fox affiliate WNYW, was the first to report Elzanaty's investment in the Islamic center project and his donation to the Holy Land Foundation. The tax filing listing the donation was provided to The Associated Press by The Investigative Project on Terrorism, a nonprofit group headed by Steven Emerson.

    Elzanaty's lawyer told a WNYW reporter in a report broadcast Thursday night that his client had no knowledge of the group's involvement with Hamas when he donated the money, and had intended the cash to go to an orphanage.

    Many other donors to the foundation gave thinking their donations would fund humanitarian programs.

    Other people and companies who donated money, equipment or services to the foundation the year Elzanaty gave included NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon, the Microsoft Corp., and a medical equipment company owned by General Electric, according to tax records.

    When the foundation's leaders were indicted, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, the case was not "a reflection on the well-meaning people who may have donated funds to the foundation."

    Newspaper stories questioning whether the Holy Land Foundation had ties to Hamas began appearing as early as 1993 and Israel banned the Richardson, Texas-based foundation from operating there in 1997. It wasn't until after the 9/11 attacks, however, that U.S. officials cracked down.

    The real estate partnership behind the drive to build the Islamic center, led by Manhattan real estate investor Sharif El-Gamal, had previously declined to reveal the names of its financial backers.

    City property records show that Elzanaty has been involved in other real estate deals with El-Gamal. He was listed as a guarantor on a $39 million mortgage that El-Gamal's investment group assumed when it purchased a Manhattan commercial building in 2009.

    Elzanaty, whose mother and father died on a flight from New York to Cairo that went down in the Atlantic in 1999, has made no secret of his past philanthropy involving the Palestinians. In a 2002 interview with Newsday, he spoke of a hesitation to donate to Middle Eastern charities because of concerns that it could unwittingly land him in a terror investigation.

    "When you see people surrounded by tanks and F-16s, you ask how can we help?" he told the paper. "But you don't want years later to have a knock on the door and someone asking why did you donate money?"