Islamic Relief to contest Israeli 'terrorism' allegations in court

A Tel Aviv court is to hear a petition from the charity Islamic Relief to restart its aid work in the occupied West Bank, six years after the Israeli government labelled it a “terrorist organisation”.

Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) said the designation had left more than 70,000 Palestinians without vital support. It will argue that allegations linking it to the militant group Hamas were unfounded.

“There is no credible evidence that we have seen, and we have got to challenge it,” Naser Haghamed, IRW’s chief executive, said in an interview. “We cannot accept to be designated and keep quiet about it.”

A one-day high court hearing was scheduled for Monday afternoon but postponed to an unspecified later date just before it was due to start. The delay is believed to be related to the coronavirus pandemic, rather than the case itself.

The charity, which has its headquarters in the UK, works in more than 40 countries and has a reputation for delivering aid to some of the world’s most hard-to-operate-in conflict zones, including Yemen and Somalia.

In 2014, Israeli authorities seized 3.6m shekels (£820,000), banned the group from operating in the West Bank, and raided its offices. However, most of the information to back up its claims is described as confidential intelligence.

After the designation, IRW commissioned an independent inquiry, which it said found no wrongdoing. Haghamed added that the charity – which receives funds from the UK, US and EU – has been audited more than 500 times in the past decade.

One focus of the case has been on aid provided to Palestinian minors, some of whom Israel said were the children of deceased Hamas militants. In response, IRW said its humanitarian work is strictly based on need.

“We do not discriminate against anyone. We do not ask for the background of those children, where their parents come from, or whether their fathers have died or anything like that,” said Haghamed. “They are orphans, and like anybody else, they deserve to be looked after.”

Avigdor Feldman, a prominent Israeli civil and human rights lawyer, said it was hard to judge the chances of success for IRW, who he was representing. He said he expected a verdict within the next three to six month.

“The whole attitude [from the Israeli government] towards IRW is quite strange and unexplainable,” Feldman said.

“This is the duty of an occupying power to help the population – to help them economically, with health, with schools. And the government is not doing it. There is a vacuum which IRW and other organisations fill and try to help.”

The Guardian has contacted the Israeli ministry of defence for comment.

Israel has a tense relationship with many humanitarian groups operating in the Palestinian territories. In a separate but similar case, the Gaza director of a Christian charity, World Vision, was accused of diverting funds to Hamas. The claims were also based on secretive testimony from intelligence officials, and internal World Vision investigations and an inquiry by the Australian government found no evidence that money had been misused.

As well as the high court case in Israel, IRW has been fighting to uphold its reputation on other fronts.

In 2012, one of its founders, Essam al-Haddad, resigned from IRW and joined the then Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, leading the charity to reiterate that it had no political agenda.

Two years later, the United Arab Emirates, a country deeply suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, also designated IRW, along with 85 other organisations, as terrorist groups – a case the IRW also criticised as flawed by a lack of available evidence.

Most recently, the charity announced last week that a trustee had resigned after he was found to have made antisemitic comments on Facebook, including labelling Israeli authorities as “grandchildren of monkeys and pigs”.

The IRW chief executive, Haghamed, said he had been “appalled” by the “unacceptable” posts. Ask if the scandal had come at a particularly bad time ahead of the Israeli court case, he replied: “To be honest, for any charity, there is no good time for bad news … any bad news, any time, is really bad.”

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