The attacks on a great Palestinian charity by UK Lawyers For Israel must end
Earlier this month, Interpal, the British charity that does notable work providing humanitarian aid, education, health and community development for Palestinians in need, hosted a lunch in central London to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
About 40 diplomats, politicians, charity workers and others attended. Sir Terence English, the pre-eminent cardiac surgeon, talked movingly about rebuilding the limbs of the many young Palestinian men shot by Israeli snipers in the knee during the Gaza protests over the past year.
The principal speaker was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) ambassador, Dr Husam Zomlot, who was the ambassador in Washington before the Trump administration closed the PLO office and revoked his diplomatic visa in last September.
Sat beside him was Dr Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat, who said that Israel was losing support overseas at the same time as the nation’s right, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are gaining power and popularity at home.
Against the odds
Yet, a pall hung over the event. Interpal is now fighting a battle against the odds, just to keep going.
It is under pressure from a group called UK Lawyers For Israel (UKLFI). For the past year, the UK Lawyers for Israel has actively sought to pressure financial organisations into withdrawing banking or donation processing facilities for Interpal.
As a result Interpal is losing its ability to raise money. UK Lawyers for Israel have also targeted other organisations including War on Want, an anti-poverty charity also based in London whose work includes campaigning for Palestinian human rights and calling the UK to impose a two-way embargo on the sale of arms to Israel.
Interpal is respected by many independent experts for its work in the field of medicine, education and humanitarian aid in a part of the world where the need is very great.
The great Israeli historian Avi Shlaim stated in a speech at the end of the lunch: “We are at a turning point in the Israeli-Palestine conflict where the Palestinians face an existential crisis. Now more than ever before, they need all the support they can get. And that is the significance of organisations like Interpal.”
But UK Lawyers for Israel disagree. For them the matter is simple: Interpal is a terrorist-supporting organisation which needs to be put out of business.
It goes without saying that if Interpal really is involved in terrorism, it should face a criminal investigation. If the allegations are proven, Interpal should be closed and its senior figures should face criminal charges and jail.
Crucially, however, British authorities regard Interpal as legitimate. The UKLFI campaign principally depends on the United States, where the Treasury designated Interpal as a terrorist organisation in 2003.
These claims followed charges that the group supported Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organisation which is designated by the EU and US as a terrorist group. While Canada and Australia follow America’s terrorist designation of Interpal, many other countries and international organisations do not.
Allegations of terrorist links
The UK Charity Commission investigated Interpal in the wake of the US designation and on two other occasions. Each time it cleared the group of all allegations of illegal activity.
The third investigation insisted Interpal review their due diligence and monitoring processes as well as break off all ties with a group which the Charity Commission was concerned had links to Hamas.
The Charity Commission later confirmed that Interpal had complied.
Again and again, Interpal has been able to disprove charges made against it
The British government has refused to follow the US and Israel in labelling Interpal a terrorist entity. The same applies to the United Nations. Interpal helps fund the UN Relief and Works Agency, which offers support to Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East.
Again and again, Interpal has been able to disprove charges made against it. In 2005 the charity won a libel case against the Board of Deputies of British Jews after it denounced Interpal as a terrorist organisation on its website.
And over last weekend, the Daily Mail issued an apology to Interpal following an article published in last August. It stated: "The Trustees assure us, and we accept, that neither Interpal, nor its Trustees, have ever been involved in or provided support for terrorist activity of any kind. We apologise to the Trustees for any distress caused".
The above claims resemble the assertion made by the US Treasury, which describes Interpal as "a principal charity utilized to hide the flow of money to Hamas". This is also the claim cited by UKLFI in statements that declare how their legal action has denied Interpal access to means of receiving donations.
'Committed to peace'
Critics of Interpal refer to the fact that its founder has met repeatedly with senior Hamas figures. But the charity's supporters point out that Hamas is the elected government in Gaza. It is impossible for any organisation to work long-term in the area without having dealings with its senior administration.
When I interviewed the founding trustee earlier this month, Essam Yousef told me that the US authorities were invited by the Charity Commission to provide evidence for their allegations, but did not do so.
He said: "We are a clean organisation committed to peace and helping the Palestinian people, but we are also an easy target.”
Indeed, these allegations are nothing new and Interpal has long continued its work in spite of them.
Interpal’s CEO Jihad Qundil told me that what has changed are the tactics being used to undermine them. He said: "UK Lawyers For Israel are using international designations to threaten us in the UK where we’ve been cleared multiple times. It’s an insult to the Charity Commission."
So 11 days ago, I emailed Jonathan Turner, the barrister who works as chief executive of UKLFI. I copied all emails to him to UK Lawyers For Israel. I said that I admired Interpal’s work, but wanted to understand his concerns. I also warned him I would ask some critical questions.
No reply. So I send another email last Tuesday morning 23 April. Still no reply. Since then I have dispatched further emails and text messages, left messages on his mobile phone, and called Turner at his chambers.
Unable to get Turner to pick up the phone, on Wednesday 24 April I emailed him a list of questions. No reply. On the same day, I delivered a list of questions in hard copy to Turner’s London office. No reply.
I wanted to know what evidence UK Lawyers For Israel possessed which showed that Interpal supported terrorism, given that the British government thinks that it doesn’t. Nor does the Charity Commission. Did UKLFI think that the Charity Commission wasn’t doing its job properly?
I wanted to know what UKLFI had to say to those needy Palestinians who will lose access to medical care, education and humanitarian assistance? And what it would say to the yet-unborn Palestinians who won’t benefit from Interpal's development projects in a part of the world that desperately needs them.
I wanted to ask why UKLFI are seeking to hinder Interpal’s funding for over 6,000 children from impoverished backgrounds through a one-to-one sponsorship programme. How does this objective relate to its mission statement or objectives?
Interpal says the US authorities have never "provided a shred of credible evidence to back up the allegation" that Interpal is a terrorist entity. So I wanted to hear UKLFI’s reaction to that claim.
Interpal told me that as a result of repeated investigations it has "robust policies and procedures in place to ensure that none of our funding goes astray”.
I wanted to hear what evidence UKLFI possesses to show that claim is false.
I wanted to ask whether UKLFI accepted that the effects of its campaign against Interpal was to make the already terrible humanitarian situation faced by Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and most particularly Gaza even worse than it is already. And to find out what he felt about that.
I left a voice message telling Turner that I wasn’t an ogre. I promised him that I always go out of my way to be fair and not to misrepresent those I speak to.
I even offered him extra time to come back to me. I must have tried to reach out about a dozen times in all. Losing patience I accused Turner in one voice message of being evasive. No answer to any of these questions.
The end of Interpal?
Yet, if Turner and his organisation are determined to run a coordinated campaign to blacken the reputation and potentially put out of business a well-known British charity, they should surely be ready to be held to account.
Meanwhile, it must be said that the UKLFI campaign against Interpal seems to be very effective. Already it has claimed credit for the withdrawal of Interpal’s BT MyDonate and JustGiving services, and the withdrawal of credit card services.
It is about time that Interpal received the support it deserves
I understand that UKLFI have also sent a letter to Interpal’s bankers, Al Rayan, demanding that they should close down the charity’s bank account. That would certainly be another challenge for Interpal.
Muslims are well known for their charitable giving and there are few places where human suffering is more evident than in Gaza.
Interpal has recently published a history celebrating their first quarter century. It is an inspiring story of a charity that raised £200 in its first collection at Regents Park Mosque more than 20 years ago.
Today, they support thousands of Palestinian families and refugees through their work.
It goes without saying that if Interpal have provable links to terror, it should be closed at once. But the British government is happy for the charity to work in Britain, where I believe it has played an important role in channelling donations to humanitarian projects.
It is about time that Interpal received the support it deserves. It will be a dark day were we to allow it to be driven out of business.
Additional reporting by Jan-Peter Westad.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.