Who are Islamic Relief — and just what is Israel’s case against them?

Its role in the DEC is examined by the leading expert on the complicated links that bind Muslim charities


British Jews often complain about the lack of public relations nous by successive Israeli governments.

What, I wonder, would these self same critics make of the Facebook Fury campaign by some JC readers against the paper for publishing the Gaza Crisis Appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)? A PR triumph?
Can the decision to publish seriously be described as “shaming Israel and the Jews”? It surely had everything to do with Jewish values — common humanity and a belief in free speech.

I assume that is why JC editor Stephen Pollard — although apologising for any upset caused to some JC readers — has not actually apologised for running the ad. And rightly so.

I suspect that many of the JC’s Facebook Furious will have been equally livid with The Times for refusing to publish an ad featuring Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel excoriating Hamas for its use of children as human shields. At least the Guardian did, to its credit — and it’s not often one can say that about a newspaper whose coverage of the Israel Palestine conflict sometimes seems unbalanced.

We await more verifiable casualty statistics than have been released by Gaza’s Hamas-run Ministry of Health. Early indications suggest that for every combatant, roughly one non-combatant was killed — far lower than the estimated ratios in NATO operations in Afghanistan — and inevitable in an asymmetric urban war, especially if Hamas did cynically use civilians in an “out-crazy the crazies” strategy — as a New York Times columnist put it.

It’s also true that the number of Palestinians killed by the IDF is what the rest of the Arab world’s warring factions sometimes get through in a morning.

But Operation Protective Edge still leaves several thousand Gazan innocents, including many children, dead, horribly maimed and with no homes or possessions and no livelihoods.

It takes a stone heart not to want to help and I know of several Jews who have sent money to the DEC. The DEC is a central co-ordinating body for 13 major UK charities.

Many of the Facebook Furious were particularly angered by the fact that one of the 13 charities was the Birmingham-based Islamic Relief Worldwide.

The DEC’s Chief Executive Saleh Saeed is Islamic Relief’s former Chief Executive.

Islamic Relief has an impressive record of bringing much-needed relief around the world. In Iraq, now facing its worst humanitarian crisis since 2006, the charity is providing food, clothing and water to Christians and Yazidis as they flee the barbarism of Islamic State forces.

However, when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Islamic Relief has had an historical presentational problem.

As Hamas’ founding charter makes clear, Hamas grew from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which has grown into an international Islamic fundamentalist movement.

Over the years, several senior members of this wider Brotherhood movement have served as Islamic Relief trustees and directors.

Fundraising events in aid of Islamic Relief have occasionally also featured speakers with extreme views — such as Haitham al Haddad, an avowed supporter of Hamas who has said: ”We always say that the conflict between Islam and the enemies of Islam is an on-going conflict and we should pay the price of this victory from our blood and Muslims are ready to do so.” He is also reported to have said the Jews are “the enemies of God, and the descendants of apes and pigs.”

Islamic Relief insists it is scrupulously neutral and emphasises that it is supported by UN agencies and the European Commission. It could have added the Prime Minister. During the last election campaign, David Cameron visited the charity’s Birmingham HQ.

However, the Israelis have been concerned about Islamic Relief for over a decade. In 2006, a 36-year-old Pakistani-born British Islamic Relief worker was arrested by the Israelis, who said they had found documents connecting the charity to illegal Hamas funds in the UK and Saudi Arabia. They also said the worker was in possession of photographs of Hamas military activities, Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and swastikas superimposed on IDF symbols.

The worker said there was “not a grain of truth in anything that Islamic Relief or I have been accused of by the Israeli authorities”. Islamic Relief said the Israelis were engaged in a smear campaign.

Islamic Relief had been on Israel’s radar since the 2nd Intifada. It was listed as one of the founding “participants” in an organisation called the Union of Good, at that time known as the “101 Days Campaign”, whose president was the Muslim Brotherhood movement’s de facto spiritual leader Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi.

This would have been an unwise involvement. The Sheikh was an avowed supporter of Hamas and defender of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

In 2008, the US Treasury alleged that the UoG acted “as a broker for Hamas by facilitating financial transfers between a web of charitable organisations” and designated it as a terrorist entity.

Islamic Relief told me it “was never a member or supporter of the Union of Good and never gave its consent to be listed as such”. Yet its name was on the Union of Good website from 2001 to 2003. Can the charity really have been oblivious to that?

The Union of Good was established by the London-based Palestinian charity, Interpal. The US Treasury has alleged that Interpal was “a principal charity utilized to hide the flow of money to Hamas”. Interpal has categorically denied having any links with Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organisation in the US, UK, the EU.

However, following an investigation I carried out on Interpal for the BBC Panorama programme in 2009 the UK Charity Commission ordered Interpal to sever its links with the Union of Good.

The Commission found that “continued membership” was “not appropriate” because “designated organisations” were among the UoG’s membership. There was also a “lack of clarity surrounding the constitution, organisation structure and membership of the Union of Good”.

The Commission also asked the UoG to supply the names of its UK members. Islamic Relief was not one of them. However, a year later, its name was again listed by the UoG, this time on its Arabic website.

This June Islamic Relief was outlawed by Israel, whose domestic intelligence service alleged it was “another source of funds for Hamas”. The charity is now banned by Israel from the West Bank.

The Israelis have not responded to Islamic Relief’s request for details of the case against them. Islamic Relief say they are “extremely surprised and concerned” at the decision to outlaw them and categorically deny “any links with Hamas.”

However, it is unlikely that Islamic Relief will be prevented from working in Gaza by the British government, even if Israel is able to show that they have remitted funds to organisations linked to Hamas.

The reason for this is that the Foreign Office takes a different view from the Israelis, the Americans and some other governments such as Germany as to what constitutes funding Hamas.

Integral to the Hamas movement is its welfare infrastructure which runs charitable organisations in Gaza and the West Bank.

Over the years, millions have been sent or directed to these organisations by Interpal and the Union for Good.

Whilst there is no evidence that this money has bought weapons, the Americans and others have nonetheless regarded this as funding Hamas because Hamas leaders have themselves emphasised the seamless nature of the movement’s three constituent parts: social, political and military.

Hamas’s welfare organisations are part of its political wing and Hamas’s founder, the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, said its political and military wings are “one body. We cannot separate the wing from the body. If we do so, the body will not be able to fly.”

Likewise, Hamas’s current political supremo Khalid Mishaal has said: “You cannot say that Hamas is only a religious, or only a political, or only a military, or only a religious and social movement. It is not, for example, just an armed wing or a political party. It is all of these things. It is a fusion of all these dimensions.”

A key Hamas politburo memorandum has also acknowledged that Hamas’s “social movement” is an integral part of what it calls “The Hamas Project”.

That project is described as building “the organisational infrastructure for a Jihadi (struggle) to project both against the Zionist occupation in Palestine in particular and against the Zionist project in general” — all ultimately aimed at eliminating Israel and replacing it with an Islamic state, as ordained by the Hamas Charter.

The Americans have argued that funding Hamas-linked welfare organisations allows Hamas to promote its own extreme form of religious proselytising — or da’wah.

This in turn assures popular support for the Hamas movement as a whole, including its military wing, and helps Hamas to compete with opposing political factions, particularly, its main rival Fatah.

By contrast, the Foreign Office here, whilst acknowledging that Hamas’s “political wing is represented by charitable organisations”, argues that Hamas’s military wing operates separately.

For its part, Interpal says that while some of its funds may have gone to organisations linked to Hamas, only humanitarian need — not ideology — has determined the choice.

I hope this helps to explain the complexities of charitable funding in Gaza.

The JC Facebook Furious would be better off using their energy to take up any further questions with the British government.

Last updated: 8:45am, August 21 2014