I have been the chair of trustees for 17 of Interpal's 20 years as a British charity helping Palestinians in desperate need; it is a privilege to be in such a position. Being a trustee has enabled me to meet and work with some wonderful people, including our incredible beneficiaries in occupied Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon. They inspire us as we try to bring a degree of normality to their extraordinarily abnormal situation.
It hasn't been an easy ride. Interpal was declared by the US government in 2003 to be a "Specially designated global terrorist entity"; there was no due process, no investigation and no immediately obvious right to appeal against the decision. We discovered our new status via the BBC website. I called it "gesture politics" at the time, because claims that the US was freezing Interpal's assets in America were nonsense; we didn't have any assets there. In fact, the only money we have in the States now is around $100,000 which was confiscated by Citibank as the transfer of funds for our orphans' programme in Jordan crossed a computer screen in New York. Orphans went without so that American and Israeli egos could be massaged.
A number of investigations and inquiries by Britain's charity regulator have found no evidence of illegal activity by Interpal, and the US government has offered no evidence to justify its designation. The absence of any police involvement, said one senior Metropolitan Police officer, "is hugely significant".
The "terrorist" tag originated in Israel, of course, which has a strong interest in blocking any kind of aid to the Palestinians living under its brutal military occupation; if life is made harsh enough, the theory goes, then perhaps the Palestinians will pack up and cross the Jordan into permanent exile. This is known in Zionist jargon as "silent transfer". After almost 70 years of occupation, the Israelis obviously do not know the Palestinians, or the people who support them.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whose senior spokesperson, Chris Gunness, has flown over to speak at Interpal's 20th anniversary symposium in London, is at the forefront of working to keep the Palestinians afloat. Interpal is proud to be a valued partner of UNRWA and has a number of projects in the pipeline to continue such work in the months and years ahead.
Despite having such a high profile link to a UN agency, accusations of supporting "terrorism" have been thrown at Interpal almost since day one, with a claim in a major broadsheet that we "funded the training of suicide bombers" in 1996. A small charity has been seen as an easy target; we are the pebble in the Israeli shoe and just won't go away. "Interpal," said one Israeli politician, "is a tough nut to crack."
The attack on our charity has been relentless which is odd, given our relatively small size. Italian journalist and author Loretta Napoleoni is an expert on "terrorist financing". She told me that the US and Israeli governments are going after charities like Interpal precisely because they think that we are easy targets and can be shut down, at which point they can claim to be "cutting off terrorist funding". The reality, she said, is that most of the $3 trillion drugs and terrorist economy is channelled through legitimate businesses, not charities. In 2012, HSBC confirmed that it was going to pay the US authorities $1.9bn (£1.2bn) in a settlement over money laundering. "A US Senate investigation said the UK-based bank had been a conduit for 'drug kingpins and rogue nations'," reported the BBC. The bank "admitted having poor money laundering controls and apologised." There has been no special designation for a bank involved in very serious crime, but a small charity against whom there are only allegations from vexatious complainants face being driven out of existence; our only "crime" is helping Palestinians.
The message from our New York lawyer is that the US Treasury can only do so much about the designation: "It was a political decision and needs a political decision to rescind it." In other words, the State Department must be involved, which is why Interpal has asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a number of times to speak on its behalf. Even though HM Government intervened on behalf of British banks facing legal action in the US, this British charity has been told "you need to raise it yourselves with the Americans". Individual parliamentarians in both Houses have been very supportive over the years, but of government action there has been none.
Interpal distributes on average around £4 million a year and every penny is accounted for. In the great scheme of things, this is a relatively miniscule amount (Israel gets $8m a day from the US). The bureaucratic system that we have in place makes it ridiculous to suggest that we divert donations for illegal purposes.
The fact that many of the projects Interpal has funded are also funded by USAid doesn't carry any weight in Washington, and America insists that we should discriminate along political lines in the distribution of our funds; discrimination of any kind is illegal for British charities, and rightly so. We will continue to support Palestinians with humanitarian aid without fear or favour, the only criteria being need.
Many of Interpal's beneficiaries are women and children. The children of Palestine, Muslims and Christians alike, have had their childhood stolen from them; we should all hang our heads in shame at this. More than 80 per cent of the children in the Gaza Strip suffer from post-traumatic stress. Every time an Israeli jet flies overhead, or a helicopter, or a drone, these children wait for the bombs to follow; that is what they have come to expect. It is a shameful situation.
The recent news that the dedicated surgeon and activist Dr Mads Gilbert has been given a lifetime ban by Israel from entering the Gaza Strip illustrates perfectly the Israeli attitude towards anyone offering humanitarian assistance to Palestinians. It has nothing to do with "terrorism" and everything to do with enforcing an immoral and illegal blockade on the territory. What is being done in the name of "the only democracy in the Middle East" is not only undemocratic but also breaks international law. Israel's leadership knows this but carries on regardless and with apparent impunity. NGOs and others will do likewise until justice is seen to be done and a free and independent Palestine emerges from the rubble.
This is an edited version of the speech given by Ibrahim Hewitt at Interpal's 20th anniversary symposium in London on 25th November.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.