I am following with interest the reaction to Israel’s designation of six Palestinian human rights organisations as “terrorist” groups. The small British charity of which I was chair for almost 25 years was thus designated by Israel in 1996 and by the US administration of George W Bush in 2003. Although the Israeli designation was unknown to us until I went to Tel Aviv for a field trip in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with two members of parliament in 1998 and was stopped at Ben Gurion Airport, the US designation was an entirely different kettle of fish.
Indeed, it was probably the defining moment of Interpal’s years of existence and yet I had to read about it online. Nobody in the US administration bothered to let us know that Bush was “freezing the assets” of a number of individuals and organisations “alleged to have provided support to Hamas”. The first that I knew of it was when I read the BBC website on 22 August 2003. Amongst the names listed I saw “The Palestinians Relief and Development Fund, or Interpal, based in Britain”.
There was no due process in this decision, and despite the serious nature of the allegation — and the extremely debilitating effect on Interpal’s ability to operate with normal banking facilities, essential for any charity — neither the US authorities nor the Israelis (from where the request for the charity to be listed as a “specially-designated global terrorist entity” originated) have ever provided a shred of credible evidence to back up the allegation. Britain’s charity regulator, the Charity Commission, has never found evidence of any illegal activity by Interpal.
Off the record, we were told that the decision to place Interpal on the terrorist list came through the US State Department. “It was entirely a political decision, which will require another political decision to reverse it.” That is probably never going to happen.
As the chair of Interpal, I was privileged to travel the world — the US, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Zealand — representing the charity; I have met royalty and ministers, and written and spoken on the Palestine issue widely at home and abroad. If there was any substance to the US-Israeli allegations, would that have been possible? As one senior Metropolitan Police Special Branch officer commented at the time: “The absence of any police involvement [in Interpal’s case] is hugely significant.”
The small charity averaged around £5 million ($6.7 million) per year in donation, next to nothing in the great scheme of things, where the US gives Israel $3 billion every year, at least. Nevertheless, following the designation, we received support from many prominent people, from politicians and surgeons, to media personalities and activists. Sadly, that had no effect on the designation, and Interpal now exists without any access to the banking sector. Thankfully, other charities took over its commitments in the Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East.
Interpal was caught in an extremely politicised situation, and faced attacks from right-wing media and individuals. Several libel cases were all settled out of court, in Interpal’s favour. The charity was described in Israel as “a particular tough nut to crack”, and (courtesy of WikiLeaks) we know that US officials asked their British counterparts, “Absent a smoking gun, why not just close it down?” To their credit, the Brits explained that this was not the way we do things in this country.
Back in 2003, one unknown donor in Europe contacted Interpal to say, “If Bush has put you on his list of terrorists, you must be a force for good, so I am sending you a donation.” And he did.
Being designated by Israel and its lackeys in the West is a pain, no doubt about it, but it generally reflects the good work that NGOs do in occupied Palestine. That may not be much consolation for the six human rights groups listed as “terrorists” by Israel last week, but it should reassure their supporters enough to keep their support going, and even increase it. If not, then the real losers will not be the organisations, but the Palestinian people. And that can’t be allowed to happen.