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Response to Interpal inquiry by Charity Commission

By John Ware
BBC Panorama reporter

Interpal logo

The Charity Commission has criticised the London-based Palestinian charity Interpal for claiming it has been "vindicated" by the Commission's inquiry into Panorama's allegations that charity funds had gone to organisations promoting Hamas ideology in Gaza and the West Bank.

Andrew Hind, the Commission's Chief Executive said: "Our report does not give the charity a clean bill of health."

There are four main findings by the Commission arising from Panorama's investigation, of which three go against Interpal, while on the fourth the Commission admits it is effectively unable to regulate.

The programme "Faith, Hate and Charity", transmitted in July 2006, said that funds from Interpal "had helped build up Hamas into what it is today" by most of them being sent to Islamic (partner) charities in Gaza and the West Bank, a number of which promoted Hamas' ideology.

Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union.

Panorama showed how Interpal was at the heart of a global coalition of 56 Islamic charities called the Union for Good, chaired by the spiritual leader of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood Movement, Dr Yusuf Qaradawi.

The Commission has now ordered Interpal to "dissociate" itself from the Union for Good.

Dr Qaradawi has said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "We must plant the love of death and the love of martyrdom in the Islamic nation." Panorama reported that he has made no bones about the relationship between charity and politics, saying: "I don't like this word 'donations'. I like to call it Jihad with money, because God has ordered us to fight enemies with our lives and our money."

Panorama also highlighted the fact that Dr Essam Mustafa, the General Secretary of the Union Good. doubled as Interpal's Managing Trustee. The Commission discloses that Dr Mustafa was in fact the originator of the Union for Good.

Links denied

Last November, the US Treasury designated the Union for Good as a terrorist entity saying it "facilitates the transfer of tens of millions of dollars a year to Hamas-managed associations in the West bank and Gaza strip". Its primary purpose was to "strengthen Hamas' political and military position" there by dispensing "social welfare and other charitable services on behalf of Hamas".

The US Treasury Department also says that "as of mid-2007" Dr Mustafa "served on the Hamas executive committee under Hamas leader Khaled Misha'al."

The Commission does not say if it explored this allegation against Dr Mustafa. It says only that "evidence before the Inquiry did not indicate links between Dr Mustafa and terrorist activities".

Dr Mustafa has denied having any links to Hamas.

The Commission also reveals that at least five out of 24 organisations which appeared on an undated list of members of the Union for Good, supplied by Interpal, have been since 2003, designated as terrorist entities in the UK.

Although Interpal advised the Inquiry that these designated entities were no longer members, in December 2008, the Union for Good supplied its list of members, which included at least four of the same designated entities.

The Commission says that should Dr Mustafa wish to continue as an Interpal trustee, he too will have to sever all links with the Union for Good.

'Inadequate investigation'

The implication of the Commission's finding, taken with others, is that it does acknowledge money may have found its way to inappropriate recipients.

Minutes of Interpal's detailed response to the Commission published at the weekend suggest that the charity is gearing up for a legal challenge to the order to disassociate from the Union for Good.

Panorama said many of Interpal's partner charities in the Palestinian territories were linked to Hamas and some were run by its senior members.

The Commission criticises Interpal for not having "acted with greater diligence to satisfy themselves" that its partners "were not directly or indirectly supporting the promotion of terrorist ideology or activities".

It says that following transmission of Panorama's programme, Interpal trustees just "accepted the responses" from its Palestinian partner charities that they were not promoting hatred and violence "without adequate further investigation".

The Commission discloses that Interpal sent questionnaires to its partner charities with questions like: "Does your charity urge hatred and violence? Or do your employees do so?" to which one charity responded: "The society goals don't encourage incitement on hatred or violence. Employees of the society don't practice any activity in this regard." Another charity replied to the same question with: "We don't support hatred or violence, and none of our staff use this method. Our goal is to help Palestinian women and children."

The Commission says this approach was "inadequate."

The Commission says it has now "used its statutory powers to direct Interpal to review their due diligence and monitoring procedures relating to their partner organisations".

The Commission finds that Interpal failed to implement "regulatory advice" from 2003 arising from the second of the Commission's two previous inquiries into Interpal, that Interpal should have got "independent verification of the work done" by its Palestinian partner charities.

This raises an obvious question as to why Interpal has not been sanctioned by the Commission for this four year failure.

Video evidence

The much bigger question raised by the Commission's report, however, is whether it is, in fact, capable of properly regulating a charity operating somewhere like Gaza and the West Bank.

Included in a wealth of material which Panorama passed to the Commission was video evidence of young girls at an event organised by one of Interpal's partner charities being encouraged to sing: "We all sacrifice ourselves for our country" and "... we answer your call and make of our skulls a ladder to your glory, a ladder."

Another clip shows girls dancing to a tune with the lyrics: "Fasten your bomb belt oh would-be martyr and fill the square with blood so that we get back our homeland."

A woman, who was organizing another event was seen taking the microphone and telling the children: "To martyrs in every time and place… To the rich blood and to the wounds which have drawn the identity of Islamic land."

In paragraph 60 of its report, the Commission acknowledged that the material presented to it "seemed to indicate that certain local partners funded by the Charity promoted terrorist ideology or activities amongst their beneficiaries.

However, the Inquiry could not verify to its satisfaction each of these item's provenance or accuracy.

In order for the Inquiry to draw firm conclusions from the material, it would need proof that the material was found at particular identifiable local partners, and/or showed activities which could be proved to have been carried out at a particular identifiable partner, during a particular period of time."

Allegations ignored

A Commission spokeswoman has since made clear that they did not actually investigate Panorama's material because the Commission had not seen its role as being to "prove or disprove" Panorama's allegations: "The purpose of the inquiry was not to look at all the allegations made in the programme" she said.

Instead, as she explained to the Guardian: "The purpose of the inquiry was not to look at all the allegations made in the programme, but to look at the material supplied by the BBC to identify the specific regulatory issues for the commission. We looked at these specific issues and set out what our findings were and what, if any, action was required from the charity in response."

Interpal Chairman Ibrahim Hewitt has claimed that Interpal has been "vindicated" by the Commission: "... after a most rigorous process, these accusations have been refuted by the inquiry."

However, the Commission's clarification that its Inquiry was "not to look at" Panorama's allegations but to "identify specific regulatory issues" means that the Interpal Chairman has misrepresented the position and that the nub of the issue raised by Panorama remains unresolved, and effectively unregulated, despite a probe lasting over two years.

Indeed, the Commission, as regulator, appears to have absolved itself from the act of regulating, and seems content to pass that evidentiary responsibility completely to the regulated body, Interpal.

In criticising the tone of Mr Hewitt's claim to have been vindicated, the Commission says Interpal has failed to acknowledge the remedial action the trustees are now required to take.

Chief Executive Andrew Hind says: "The commission has formally directed the charity to end its membership of the Union for Good, an organisation that has had designated entities - because of concerns about possible terrorist links - among its membership."

The Commission reports that although Interpal's trustees "regularly reassured the Inquiry that they were prepared to cooperate fully" with its Inquiry, in practice "there were, on occasions, delays in obtaining information." The Commission twice had to use its statutory powers to get answers to questions even after deadlines had been extended.

Incendiary language

It is not clear from the footnotes of the Commission's report whether during its lengthy inquiry it gathered much original material of its own. At least one finding appears to be inaccurate.

The Commission referred to a broadcast on Al Jazeera in 2001 when Dr Mustafa called Sheikh al-Qaradawi the "Sheikh of the Mujahideen."

The Commission says that it "acknowledged" that the definition of "Mujahideen" could include being "associated with the Taliban and militant Islamists" and that an Interpal trustee Dr Mustafa should have exercised caution when using terms that are open to controversial political interpretations.

However, the Commission "makes no findings on this allegation" observing that the "incident took place a number of years ago and was the only such example brought to the Inquiry's attention". This is not correct.

Panorama transmitted a second appearance by Dr Mustafa on Al Jazeera in April 2002 (also during the second intifada) when viewers heard him telephoning in to Dr Qaradawi and hailing him as "the Sheikh of the Mujahideen….The Sheikh of heroic stands. …But my biggest salutation is to the Mujahideen: to the heroes of the Palestinian people who are sacrificing everything that is precious."

The Commission said that in the 2001 incident Dr Mustafa told them he had used the word "Mujahideen" while "speaking in his personal capacity at the time".

If that was the case, it was manifestly not so in the second April 2002 incident in which Dr Mustafa told al Jazeera: "We here in the Union for Good - headed by Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi - have a role in rescuing the nation of Palestine."

Although this passage was not included in the Panorama broadcast, it was included in a detailed, lengthy and sourced written submission (with exhibits, including translations) prepared by Panorama for the Commission to assist with its Inquiry.

Eighteen pages of Panorama's submission set out other examples of highly politicised statements in articles, mostly in Arabic, bearing Dr Mustafa's name during the second intifada in his capacity as Secretary General of the Union for Good. These articles spoke, inter alia of:

"…. the occupying Zionist presence..."; "Palestinians have not resigned themselves to the end of this struggle..."; "... the Christian and Jewish Zionist Movement and its supporters…"; "we in the Union for Good have begun to coordinate and organise towards rescuing our people in Palestine from what the Israeli enemy is doing...".

Partisan views

Articles in Dr Mustafa's name post-the second intifada included the words: "… the unjust Zionist forces... the policy of group punishment which aims to make the Palestinian people submit and accept the Zionist policy which aims towards complete domination of the land of Palestine in particular and the homeland… saving the Palestinian people from the claws of Zionist oppression and injustice... And we say to them: 'if they support you in religion you will have victory'"; "…the Zionist entity has almost radically changed the architectural structure of the city. ... our battle with the Zionist enemy is a long one… our right to liberate our homeland and holy places, and to continue working hard for this with the use of language, and support and jihad in all its forms, until God allows for victory: victory only comes from God".

The inquiry report states: "Holding or expressing strongly controversial or partisan views on a particular issue which is of detriment to and compromises the charity's integrity, purposes or activities may make an individual unsuitable to act as a trustee of that charity. This is regardless of whether those views are held or expressed in a personal capacity."

Panorama explained to the Commission that although these articles were in Dr Mustafa's name he had denied writing them. However, the Commission makes no mention of them, so it is unclear as to whether its inquiry resolved the issue of authorship.

Asked to comment why its inquiry report made no mention of Dr Musatfa's second call to al Jazeera or the other politicised comments in his name, the Commission told the BBC:

"In examining the issues of regulatory concern and considering all the evidence relating to these issues, our report sets out our findings, drawn from that evidence and the regulatory principles involved. The report may not refer to each piece of evidence specifically, rather it sets out our findings based on the evidence in total."

US convictions

The inquiry's otherwise low key approach is in sharp contrast to the way that US authorities have investigated Interpal's former American partner charity, the Holy Land Foundation. Like Interpal, the HLF was a founder member of the Union for Good

Last November, a Dallas jury unanimously convicted seven members of the HLF of providing material support to Hamas. Documents seized in 2004 from the Virginia home of a senior member of a Hamas-established organisation graded Islamic charities in the West Bank and Gaza in 1991 as "all of it is ours" or "guaranteed". Over the years, Interpal has sent funds to most of these same charities.

Documents dating from the early 1990s, disclosed that the "Palestine section" of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Levant countries established an "outside" network in the US, Britain, Europe and the Gulf. According to its charter, Hamas is the Palestinian Branch of the Brotherhood.

A department of Justice official told the BBC the documents provided "clear evidence of the Muslim Brotherhood's plan to create a support structure in the US and Europe for Hamas's social institutions". Funds were to be directed from the HLF in the US and Islamic charities in Europe to partner charities in Gaza and the West Bank to boost Hamas' popularity.

A senior Hamas politician Dr Mahmoud Ramahi told Panorama that Hamas' extensive social welfare network had the "main responsibility" for Hamas being voted into power in January 2006 because it had helped the movement earn the trust of ordinary Palestinians.

As Panorama showed, FBI tapes from a bugged secret weekend conference in Philadelphia in October 1993 revealed members of the Muslim Brotherhood discussing how to disguise the political intention of this funding behind a legal smokescreen. The transcripts record that whilst these activists were intent on relieving hardship, it was politics more than altruism that was driving where that relief was to be directed.

Dr Mustafa told Panorama he knew nothing about the Philadelphia conference and has denied Interpal ever having been part of any plan to boost Hamas' political fortunes through welfare funding.

Proscribed group

It is not clear from the Commission's report if it examined the wealth of documents produced during the HLF trial for any relevance to the UK, but in any event the Commission does not consider any criminal offence has been committed by Interpal.

There are two separate wings to Hamas: the political wing and the military wing - Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, although founders of Hamas themselves have acknowledged the distinction is artificial, and that its social welfare activism is about more than simply altruism.

For example, in a January 1998 interview for Hamas's monthly magazine Filisteen al Muslima (which glorifies suicide bombers and until at least 9/11 operated from a flat in North London) Dr Ibrahim AI-Yazuri said:

"Everyone knows that the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, is a Palestinian Jihad movement that strives for the liberation of all Palestine, from the (Mediterranean) sea to the river (Jordan), from the north to the south, from the tyrannical Israeli occupation, and this is the main part of its concern. Social work is carried out in support of this aim, and it is considered to be part of the Hamas movement's strategy "

Hamas' military wing is also a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. So it is a criminal offence to support the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. However, the UK government has not taken action against anybody in the UK for that.

The European Union has, since 12 September 2003, designated Hamas (including its political wing) as one terrorist entity by EU regulation. On 22 September 2003, Hamas as a whole was designated by the UK Government.

This means it is also now a criminal offence to provide various forms of financial assistance to Hamas, as a whole, with no distinction made between its military and non-military wings, under EU and UK law.

The Foreign Office's own website has acknowledged: "Hamas political wing is represented by charitable organizations which raise and remit funds for welfare purposes."

However, although the American and German authorities have used the law to close down Interpal's partner charities - who were funding the same charities in Gaza and the West Bank to which Interpal is still allowed to remit funds - the UK government clearly considers there is an absence here of high quality evidence.

Any decision to prosecute would also need to be weighed against possible bridge building activity by the Foreign Office to Hamas - an organisation which, after all, is the democratically elected Palestinian government.

Bridge building

During the Commission's inquiry, a home office official is reported to have expressed concern that any adverse finding against Interpal that blocked funds might have a significant effect on community cohesion.

Over the years, Interpal has generated considerable support amongst some MPs, is venerated by virtually every Islamic organisation here and is relied upon by thousands of ordinary Muslim donors wishing to relieve hardship in Gaza and the West Bank.

The Commission is a non ministerial department of government and says it is independent of ministerial influence.

Interpal however appears to be claiming the semi-official imprimatur of government. Even while the charity was under investigation for links to Hamas in 2007, minutes from Interpal trustees say that a "delegation of Interpal Trustees met with officials from the British Embassy in Jordan and together paid a visit to many partner NGOs in the region."

The minutes also mention a visit to Lebanon in August 2007 in which a "member of the British security agencies" joined them and "included a meeting with the British Ambassador and UNESCWA" - the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia.

Even so, the fact that a charity banned by several UK allies and under investigation at home was - apparently - given voluntary diplomatic services might now raise a few eyebrows.

Charity link to Hamas investigated
Thursday, 28 December 2006, 13:06 GMT |  UK
Faith, hate and charity
Friday, 28 July 2006, 10:19 GMT |  Panorama
Charity's anger at US suspicion
Sunday, 15 January 2006, 15:35 GMT |  UK
Top Jewish group 'terror' apology
Thursday, 29 December 2005, 00:27 GMT |  UK
Interpal under the microscope
Thursday, 16 October 2003, 07:20 GMT |  Business
Who are Hamas?
Sunday, 4 January 2009, 15:53 GMT |  Middle East

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