Congratulations on reaching the 10th anniversary of Interpal. How did you come to find yourself so closely affiliated with the Palestinian cause?
|`The experience of meeting so many people around the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the years, and inside 1948 Israel, has been, literally, life-changing. There is a resilience that is inspirational and the feelings of genuine brotherhood remain with me. This is true also of the camps in Jordan and Lebanon where the forgotten Palestinians live in exile.'
Jazakum Allahu Khairan (May God reward you) for your kind words. It is only through the Blessings of Allah that Interpal has reached this milestone. I also feel blessed to have been involved along the way. My involvement began in 1988, during the first Intifada, when I was asked to be the Amir (leader) of a delegation of British Muslims which went to Palestine to see for ourselves what was happening.
It was a shocking experience, because what we had seen on the news was only part of the story. The oppression, the poverty, the restrictions, the death and destruction, were all much worse than we had expected. However, the spirit of the Palestinians, Muslims and Christians alike, was incredible, and from that moment on I was hooked. On my return to Britain, I was involved in raising awareness through talks around the country, showing slides and explaining what we had witnessed. This developed into a small book called Blood on the Holy Land, which was a report of our visit. It's still available, I think, from Mustaqim Islamic Art & Literature in Milton Keynes. I have made a number of subsequent visits to Palestine, and have been involved in both relief work and awareness programmes ever since.
How did Interpal come into being as a charity dedicated solely for the benefit and betterment of Palestinians?
Interpal (or, to give the charity its proper name, the Palestinians [sic] Relief & Development Fund) was born out of the optimism of the Oslo Accords, and really took over the work of the now defunct Palestine & Lebanon Relief Fund. As a single issue charity registered and based in Britain, Interpal focuses on helping Palestinians in need, whether they are in Palestine itself or in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Although our trust deed allows us to help needy people worldwide, we believe that there is a great need to focus on Palestinians because of the central position of Palestine, especially Al-Aqsa Mosque, in Islam; because it is a long-running humanitarian catastrophe and, last but not least, because there are and were already Islamic charities with a world-wide remit.
By specialising on the Palestinian issue we can and do use the expertise we have gained to help other charities in the area. The link with Al-Aqsa has also helped Interpal to gain a special place in the hearts of the Muslim community, which has itself helped to keep alive the issue of the plight of the Palestinians.
You were blacklisted by the US government and had your assets frozen. How did you feel about this and how was the situation resolved?
Terminology is very important in this discussion, so please let me explain what happened to Interpal in August 2003. On the Friday evening of the August Bank Holiday weekend, I was surfing the net at home when I noticed a news item about certain Hamas figures `and charities' being placed on the US list of `Specially Designated Global Terrorists and Entities'. I was shocked to see that Interpal's name was on that list, not least because Interpal is not a `Hamas charity' and we have never, ever, been contacted by anyone from the US government asking to see our work, or investigate our procedures. The first we knew about being an `SDGT entity' was on the internet on that August evening. The designation order, signed by President Bush, said that Interpal's `assets in the USA' were frozen. Given that we have never had any assets in the USA, and given that the Israelis were and remain working hard to close down what they call `Hamas fundraisers' around the world, particularly in Europe, we believed that Bush's executive order was gesture politics at their most cynical.
Naturally, given the seriousness of the allegation against Interpal, the Charity Commission in Britain froze our bank accounts and launched an investigation into Interpal's affairs. This was not the first investigation that the Commission had carried out with Interpal, which had previously been given a clean bill of health. Officers from the Charity Commission have been in regular contact with our staff and trustees since 1996, and we have always implemented changes to our procedures when such amendments have been recommended by the Commission. Our aim has always been, and remains, to operate within Charity Law, in an open, honest and transparent manner. The Charity Commission's action did not prevent us from operating; basically, it meant that there was an extra layer of bureaucracy in our already very bureaucratic system. In other words, all payments from our accounts had to be approved by the Commission before being made. At the same time, the US authorities were asked by the Charity Commission to produce the evidence upon which the designation had been based. Despite a time extension being asked for and given, the US government could only produce what was described to me as 'material already in the public domain', in other words newspaper clippings. The Charity Commission rejected this 'evidence' and closed its investigation, allowing Interpal to resume its work unhindered.
Despite this clearance from the British Government (and I must stress that we also maintain close links with the Metropolitan Police Service), the US designation remains in force (so much for the US-UK `special relationship'!), and has been endorsed by the Australian and Canadian governments, as well as the Israelis, of course.
So the situation is not entirely 'resolved'; we are working with the support of our own government and security services under a cloud put in place by a foreign government at the request of a third government. (Rather reminiscent of the infamous Balfour Declaration there, but that's another story!)
What events are you planning to commemorate a decade of work for the Palestinians?
We have held a number of regional awareness and fundraising programmes around the country, and a 10th Anniversary Dinner was held on December 16th 2004 at the British Library, in conjunction with the launch of our initiative to bring together humanitarian NGOs working in the Middle East. 'Partners for Peace and Development in Palestine' aims to help NGOs to co-ordinate relief and development work to maximise benefits for the poor and needy, God Willing. By the grace of God, both programmes were well attended, with the Palestinian Ambassador and the Ambassador of the Arab League and Members of Parliament joining representatives of Oxfam, Christian Aid, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Shalom-Salaam Trust and others (apologies to those I have not named) in supporting the initiative. Senior civil servants from the Home Office and Department for International Development, as well as officers from the Metropolitan Police also joined both programmes. The events were judged to be very successful, not only in terms of the proposed initiative but also with respect to a very public acknowledgement of the important work carried out by Interpal. The Muslim Council of Britain was represented at the programme by the Secretary-General and his Deputy.
What are the main areas on which Interpal concentrates?
Interpal looks mainly at three areas of work: humanitarian relief, healthcare and education provision. The nature of the situation means that most of our efforts focus on emergency humanitarian relief, but we are very conscious of the need to move the Palestinian community away from a culture of dependency on aid towards a more self-reliant position. This means that we try to concentrate on education, including training of teachers and other professionals, and healthcare, as well as helping small businesses to develop.
To date what do you feel are the main achievements of Interpal?
It's tempting to say, 'survival!' and leave it at that. But I think that we have not only been able to help Palestinians in need, thus letting them know that they have not been forgotten during what have been and remain, very difficult times, but also helped to keep the issue of Palestine alive in the minds of the Muslim community in Britain and abroad. There are also individual projects, which I feel have a special place in my own heart: a large orphanage in Al-Khalil (Hebron) springs to mind, as does a school in Jordan for children with cerebral palsy. For me to have visited the school and seen with my own eyes the joy on the faces of these special kids brought tears to my eyes; the ladies who work with them are brilliant. To be able to help projects like those is a privilege and very humbling.
What are the most pressing needs of the Palestinians today and how can we help?
Where do we begin? Jobs, houses, water provision, schools, hospitals, mobile clinics, orphan and needy-family sponsorship, you name it and it's needed. We can help by supporting Interpal and other like-minded charities on a regular basis, perhaps by monthly standing order, and by sending your details to Interpal so that you can be sent regular appeals and updates
and by supporting those appeals. We should not forget Dua' (prayer), either, because at the end of the day, help comes from Allah. If we help the Palestinians today, people will help us in our time of need, which may well be around the corner.
Can you share with us some of your most memorable experiences in Palestine?
I have a very vivid recollection of visiting Gaza in 1988. Gaza is the most overcrowded place on earth, and the conditions in the refugee camps are appalling. And yet, on a Thursday when we went their, the children in the streets and I mean children, they were around 10 years old were asking us why we weren't fasting (the optional fast of Mondays and Thursdays)! Not only that, but the fishermen went to great difficulty to provide fresh fish (in the face of heavy Israeli restrictions) so that they could cook us fish and chips, our 'traditional' British dish! Amazing. These people have nothing, and yet they will share it readily with you.
I was also honoured in Masjid Al-Aqsa where I led our own group in Salah (ritual prayer), and when I turned around at the end, saw that what seemed like half of Jerusalem had joined the congregation! I am pleased that I did not know the size of the group before the prayer began.
The experience of meeting so many people around the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the years, and inside 1948 Israel, has been, literally, life-changing. There is a resilience there that is inspirational and the feelings of genuine brotherhood remain with me. This is true also of the camps in Jordan and Lebanon where the 'forgotten Palestinians' live in exile.
In Ramallah once, while driving back to Jerusalem from the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin, we stopped for the Maghrib, sunset prayer. While in the mosque, we could hear lots of commotion in the streets outside. After the prayer, we saw that there was a motorised column of Israeli settlers driving around the streets, shouting slogans through loud-halers and brandishing their automatic weapons, all escorted by Israeli soldiers laughably for their protection from the unarmed Palestinian civilians. There were fifteen or so of us British Muslims, all wearing chequered Keffayas (scarves), and we decided to shout 'Allahu Akbar' (God is Great) as the settlers approached where we stood. The column stopped, and the tension was incredible as the lead army officer and two or three of his men got out of their jeep and swaggered towards us. This officer, a young man of about 22 or 23, was swinging his riot stick as he walked. To his surprise, we did not step back, but went forward to meet him halfway, so much so that he mistimed his swinging stick and smacked himself in his face with it. End of tension, and his nominal authority, which he tried to reassert by telling us that `saying Allahu Akbar is illegal'. Well, tough luck mate, because we will keep on saying it until we have no voice left, Insha'Allah (God willing).
And you're most horrifying and frightening experiences?
The injuries that I have seen over the years have been horrifying: from a man who had been shot, thrown from the roof of his house and then run over by an Israeli jeep, to young women gassed by tear-gas canisters thrown into the confined space of their homes by Israeli soldiers; from children shot in their homes to old ladies shot in the head outside their homes. The list is endless, and all are horrifying in their own way, not least because this is happening in full view of the world's media, and yet little is done about it.
The most frightening? Unnerving is probably a better description, but I remember being shot at by Israeli soldiers in Balata refugee camp outside Nablus. These soldiers used to sit on rooftops and shoot indiscriminately into the streets of the camp, in the perceived hope of creating a disturbance and thus giving them an excuse to send a squad of soldiers into the camp to `quell the riot', with all of the violence that entailed. It's not much fun hearing the bullets whistling a matter of centimetres above your head.
What plans do you have for Interpal for the future?
To continue to help Palestinians in need for as long as it is necessary and as long as we are able, God willing. We are under no illusions that there are Zionists out there who want Interpal and other such charities to be closed down. We are equally under no illusions that there is a great deal of support for our charity and its work. So while we plan for the future, we also make contingency plans should the worst-case scenario occur. Whatever happens, it will be by the Will of Allah and a test for us, and so we shall plan and react accordingly. On a practical level, this means working towards more development aid rather than humanitarian relief so that Palestinian society can get back to a semblance of normality as far as possible.
Thank-you for your time and may God Almighty continue to bless your efforts.
Ibrahim Hewitt was in conversation with Sangeeta Dhami