A Feb. 27, 2009 report by the United Kingdom’s Charity Commission into the activities of Palestinians Relief and Development Fund (Interpal) concluded the charity is not funding or supporting groups sponsoring terrorism. The Commission ordered improvements in procedures for choosing and overseeing local charity partners in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Lebanon. It also recognized the importance of charities that conduct aid related activities in “high-risk” areas of the world and acknowledged the dangers they face. The UK process is starkly different from the United States approach of shutting down suspected charities and freezing all assets indefinitely.

Interpal, a British based charity that raises funds relief and development aid for Palestinians across the Middle East, is no stranger to investigations. Itl has been examined twice before (1996 and 2003) by the UK Charity Commission, the body charged with regulating and maintaining the public trust of UK charities. In both instances, the Commission determined there was insufficient evidence to connect the charity with sponsorship of terrorist groups.

The earlier inquiries were triggered by allegations stemming from the U.S. government’s designation of Interpal as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization in August of 2003. In all three investigations, the Commission had asked for a legal or evidential basis for the designation but the U.S. government has declined to do so each time.

The latest inquiry was triggered by allegations made by a British program, BBC Panorama on Faith, Hate and Charity, in July 2006. The program claimed funds from Interpal “had helped build up Hamas into what it is today” by financing partner groups it claimed supported and promoted a violent ideology. It also claimed an Interpal trustee had connections with Hamas leaders.

After months of reviewing documents and conducting interviews, the Commission’s Inquiry findings determined that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that “partner organizations funded by the charity may be promoting terrorist ideology or activities” and the charity had “maintained clear financial audit trails in their delivery of aid for humanitarian purposes.” However, the Inquiry ordered some changes in operations in order to avoid inadvertent indirect support for terrorist organizations in the future. The Commission’s investigation focused on four areas:

  • whether particular local partners funded by the charity were promoting the ideology or the activities of terrorist organization(s)
  • whether the charity’s membership of the Union for Good, (UFG), a coalition of organizations financing projects in West Bank and Gaza, was appropriate;
  • whether one of the trustees had any links to terrorist organizations or undertook activities which might make him unsuitable to be a trustee of the charity, and
  • whether the trustees were fulfilling their legal duties and responsibilities in ensuring partners select beneficiaries solely on the basis of need’

On the first issue, the Commission set out a standard that bars UK charities and their partner groups “that exposes beneficiaries to activities which directly, or indirectly, promote terrorism. This is so even if the charity’s funding or support were used for legitimate humanitarian aid or other charitable activities.” As an example, the report cites “use of facilities, the provision of volunteers or capacity building activities.” The Commission found the evidence “was of insufficient evidential value to support these allegations.” However, the Commission did reprimand the charity for not implementing “sufficiently rigorous steps to investigate the allegations about their local partners,” and ordered it to “carry out a review of the trustees’ due diligence and monitoring procedures.”

Perhaps the strongest language in the inquiry’s findings was the Commission’s evaluation of Interpal’s relationship with the Union for Good. Because at least one designated terrorist group is a member of UFG and formal arrangements between Interpal and UFG were insufficient, the Commission determined that “the Charity’s continued membership in Union for Good is not appropriate” and Interpal must “dissociate itself from membership of the Union for Good.”

The Commission investigated the BBC allegations about trustee Dr. Essam Mustafa and found the claim of connections to terrorist groups was “not substantiated as the evidence before the Inquiry did not indicate links between Dr Mustafa and terrorist activities.” However, the Commission strongly urged Dr. Mustafa to suspend his responsibilities at Interpal if he was to remain as General Secretary of the Union for Good.

The conclusion of the fourth issue was a strongly worded admonishment of the charity for failing to implement the recommendations from the results of their 2003 investigation. The Inquiry determined that the trustees “had not adequately fulfilled their duties and responsibilities in respect of their due diligence and monitoring procedures for their partners.” Also, certain procedures for “mitigating the risks” were inadequate given the nature of the environment where the work is conducted.

The Commission also said, “The claim that there was a bias in the distribution of aid using the Charity’s funds towards the families of martyrs was unfounded…” The report said charities cannot “deliberately select and support families who have engaged in terrorist activity”, but also noted, “It is legitimate for charities to provide aid to people in need of humanitarian relief who happen to include children or others whose families have been involved with terrorist activity.” This standard is consist with international human rights law and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s Principles of Conduct in Disaster Response Programmes, but inconsistent with U.S. law, which prohibits all support to those associated with terrorism, excepting only medicine and religious materials.

With no evidence “that suggests that the charity’s funding has been siphoned off for inappropriate or non-charitable purposes,” an Interpal statement said the group hopes to return its efforts providing aid to the “suffering people of Palestine…when the humanitarian situation is at its worst.”

Commission Addresses the Significance and Risks of Charities Working in Hostile Environments

The Commission’s findings also acknowledged the risks faced by and importance of charities committed to helping the underserved in dangerous hot spots. The findings noted a charity’s staff and volunteers “may often work where there is real danger and a risk of physical harm” while making “a vital contribution to supporting communities in desperate need and the value and the impact of their work cannot be overstated.”

In response to the unique challenges facing organizations working in Gaza, the Commission recognized that “most individuals and organizations will have some degree of contact and interface” with political and administrative groups in the region. They stressed that the burden rests with charity trustees to remain vigilant in assessing risks of partnerships and projects they engage. The Commission outlined its recommended policies for a charity to administer “aid to all individuals within a group in need that happens to include the children or families of terrorists or those responsible for terrorist activity.” They are:

  • he aid furthers the charity’s purposes

  • the aid is, in practice, capable of alleviating the need that has been identified;

  • the criteria used – by the charity or its partners – when selecting beneficiaries are consistently applied; and

  • the charity is not breaking charity, terrorism or other applicable law in providing the aid