Creating new perspectives since 2009

Why is the Muslim charity Interpal being blacklisted as a terrorist organisation?

November 26, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Today is a difficult time for a Muslim charity in Britain. For all your hard work, you risk being reviled, smeared and branded a terrorist organisation.

The Palestinian Relief and Development Fund, known as Interpal, is one such charity. Interpal provides humanitarian aid, education, health and community development in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon. It celebrates its 20th anniversary today.

Headquartered in London, with offices in Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford and Leicester, Interpal runs a registered and staffed field office in the Gaza Strip.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) publicly recognises Interpal as an indispensable partner. With refugees fleeing Syria’s bloody conflict and a huge relief effort under way in Gaza in the aftermath of the latest war with Israel, their work has never been so vital.

Interpal has many supporters. Fellow aid workers, distinguished academics and doctors have described its work as heroic. Sir Terence English, the pre-eminent cardiac surgeon, and Oliver McTernan, who was involved in peace talks in the 1990s Kosovo conflict and now runs Forward Thinking, a charity aimed at improving relations between Muslims and the West, hold Interpal in high regard.

But over the last 18 years, the charity has fought an extraordinary battle against the odds to keep running. Media speculation and a series of unsubstantiated and vicious allegations stretching back to 1996 accusing the group of supporting Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organisation, has prompted three Charity Commission enquiries, all of which have cleared it of wrongdoing and misuse of funds.

In 2003 the United States designated Interpal a terrorist organisation, which has meant its banking facilities have been severely restricted.

Since 2008, Interpal has not had regular banking facilities, including credit card donations and a direct debit service. For a group whose outgoings were over £5m in 2012, this is a huge problem. Many observers have said it is a miracle the charity is still running.

Last autumn 38 MPs signed an Early Day Motion recognising Interpal’s humanitarian work in Palestine. It called “on the Government to press the US administration to rescind its damaging designation of Interpal”.

All this seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The truth is that Islamic charities in the UK find themselves in choppy waters as they face extraordinary scrutiny and pressure. In recent weeks, as David Cameron awarded the Charity Commission extra powers to investigate “extremism”, this has escalated.

Interpal’s troubles started in 1996 when the Charity Commission launched its first investigation into allegations the charity funded Hamas and had links to a number of Hamas militants.

The charity was designated a terrorist organisation by the US in August 2003 for allegedly supporting Hamas’ political and militant wing.

A US Treasury spokesperson said: “Treasury designated Interpal for its support to the terrorist organisation, Hamas, which exploits the charitable sector to raise funds and cultivate support for its violent activities. Interpal was a principal charity used to hide the flow of money to Hamas, including through the use of other charities.”

But what was behind the US’s blacklisting of Interpal – and was it justified?

Much of it was linked to its post-9/11 clampdown on Islamic charities, part of the “War on Terror”. Many were shut down and their assets seized, such as the famous case of the Holy Land Foundation, the biggest Muslim charity in the US at the time. In 2008 five members of the Holy Land were convicted of dozens of charges, including supporting a terrorist group. The group was never accused of directly financing terrorism, but funding it indirectly through Hamas infrastructure projects. Critics said the case was politically motivated.

In the months before the designation, the US also came under intense pressure from Israel to pursue Hamas’ funding after a suicide bombing by two British Muslims at Mike’s Bar in Tel Aviv in April 2003 that killed three Israelis, commentators say.

In any case Washington’s decision led to the second Charity Commission inquiry into Interpal in 2003, which cleared the group of wrongdoing again. The commission said US authorities failed to provide evidence to back up its claims.

Nevertheless, despite vindication from the UK Charity Commission, the US’s designation of Interpal was to cause huge financial problems for the charity – and still does – sparking yet more vicious allegations against it, fed by a drip feed of spurious media reports.

In 2005 Interpal won a libel case against the Board of Deputies of British Jews two years after it denounced Interpal a terrorist organisation on its website. It issued a retraction.

Families of victims of suicide bombings in Israel filed a court case in the US in early 2006 against NatWest, Interpal’s bank at the time, for offering services to charity linked to Hamas.

Last year a US district judge threw out these cases involving NatWest and Interpal, saying there was no evidence that the group funds Hamas-supporting charities or that Natwest knowingly facilitated Interpal’s alleged provision of money to these charities.

A US appeals court, however, revived the lawsuits against NatWest in September.

The Jerusalem Post was forced to apologise to Interpal in 2006 and NatWest for an article containing remarks that said the charity was connected to a terrorist organisation.

Three years later a BBC Panorama programme accused Interpal of funding organisations in the Palestinian territories that supported the extremist ideology of Hamas and claimed there were personal links between the charity’s chief trustee, Essam Mustafa, and Hamas. The programme provoked a furious response from then Labour MP Phyllis Starkey, who branded the film “disgraceful” and accused it of “recycling allegations that have been found by the Charity Commission to have no validity”.

She said it relied on evidence which was “guilt by association”, pointing out that it was likely Hamas officials would be involved in Palestinian charities as the party had just won the largest vote in the recent elections.

The Panorama film sparked the third Charity Commission investigation between 2006 and 2009 that probed a very similar line: that the charity supported the ideology of Hamas by using local partners that were closely linked to group.

The commission for the third time found insufficient evidence to support the claims. However it found that the charity needed to be more rigorous when it came to choosing and monitoring local partners.

It also called on Interpal to sever its ties with an umbrella organisation of a number of charities called Union for Good, which the US designated in 2008, saying it funnelled money to organisations controlled by Hamas. The commission also said Interpal trustee Essam Mustafa could not continue as General Secretary of Union for Good and instructed the charity to publish guidelines related to its work with local partners in the Middle East.

Interpal did exactly what the Charity Commission asked. In 2012 the commission published a report, saying it was satisfied Interpal had complied with its statutory orders following its inquiry.

The US designation has unfairly stained Interpal’s name, but it has also affected it financially. NatWest said it could no longer offer banking services to Interpal in 2007.

In 2008 Lloyds TSB said it could not offer clearing services to Interpal, which has an account with the Islamic Bank of Britain, a Lloyds subsidiary.

Lloyds declined to comment. HSBC and the Co-operative Bank have also refused Interpal accounts.

Since Interpal has had no normal banking services, it has no direct debit facility and donations can’t be made by credit card. It has to rely on cash donations at events and fund-raisers through third parties. Both Interpal chairman Ibrahim Hewitt and trustee Essam Mustafa are barred from travelling to the US, Israel, Canada and Australia.

Since the last Charity Commission investigation, Interpal has gone to great lengths to be as transparent as it can.

An impressive 80-page compliance manual lists a set of strict guidelines that the charity must operate within. Major activities undertaken by the group are risk-assessed.

What is more, the group has almost entirely stopped working with local partners in Gaza. Funding proposals are dealt with by its local office there and money is disbursed directly to projects.

Interpal trustee Essam Mustafa strenuously denies the charity has ever misused funds. He says when the charity used to work with local partners, it chose only to partner with ones approved by the local authority. Before 2006 all local charities and their boards in Gaza were registered and approved by the Israeli authorities anyway, he points out.

“They [Israel] can remove board members if they see that they are not fit for the position and if there were Hamas activists then why would they keep them?” asked Mr Mustafa.

Jonathan Benthall, an associate fellow at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at Manchester University, knows Interpal well and has worked on high-level reconciliation efforts between Western governments and Islamic charities.

He said: “Interpal has kept the most meticulous records, as much as any other international charity working in the Middle East. When they send money to orphans in the West Bank, they take the social security number of the orphan even if it’s $50 that’s being given.

“It seems to me what they are doing is currently above suspicion and they are playing things very clean,” he added.

Vindication from no less than three Charity Commission investigations tells a story. So does the barrage of newspaper allegations over the years, many of which have led to the publication in question apologising to the charity and retracting its claims. Commentators suggest that if the US and Israel had any evidence that Interpal is actually funding Hamas terrorism, they would have closed down the group long ago and prosecuted its senior staff.

Bewildering, too, is the stance of the British government, caught between the decisions of the US government and the Charity Commission. What has it done to apply serious pressure on the US to lift the terrorist designation on Interpal, if it has at all? Could it have done more? If commercial interests were at stake the UK government would surely act, but Interpal is not a famous British company and no trade deal is at stake.

It is true that Interpal’s Essam Mustafa continues to arouse suspicion over his alleged links to Hamas. In late 2013 he was attacked by the media for appearing in a video next to Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, appearing to participate in an anti-Israeli song that praises Hamas’ military wing, Al Qassam Brigades, and martyrdom.

Mr Mustafa said he only raised his finger during the chant when it praised Islam and not in others parts of the song.

But as Interpal’s Hewitt points out and others with knowledge of humanitarian work in Gaza, it is almost impossible not to deal with Hamas, the ruling political party in the territory before the unity deal earlier this year, if you’re a charity working there.

Oliver McTernan, director of Forward Thinking, who describes Interpal’s treatment as “completely out of order”, thinks Mr Mustafa’s meeting with the Hamas leader is “totally appropriate”.

“Anyone senior visiting Gaza who is doing humanitarian work, who has staff in Gaza, who are dependent on the security of the de facto government [Hamas] there, it is totally appropriate for them to make time to see the prime minister [Haniyeh]. Engagement is not endorsement,” he said.

Interpal’s work in the Middle East is hugely challenging, but it is made harder by the restrictions placed on it. Britain likes to promote fairness and tolerance, but those are two words that aren’t applicable to Interpal’s experience over the last two decades in the UK. If Interpal or any of its staff are guilty of a crime, it should face justice, if not it should be left unhindered to continue its vital work

“If there’s been illegal activity then by all means stop it, but don’t drive people down who are trying to do good work,” says Mr Hewitt.

Happy birthday Interpal! And keep up your fine humanitarian work.

This article was first published on The Telegraph on Thursday the 26th of November 2014.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.