We resolve an open problem stated by Ablowitz et al (1982 J. Phys. A: Math. Gen. 15 781) concerning the integral operator appearing in the intermediate long wave equation. We explain how this is resolved using the perturbative symmetry approach introduced by one of us with Mikhailov. By solving a certain functional equation, we prove that the intermediate long wave equation and the Benjamin-Ono equation are the unique integrable cases within a particular class of integro-differential equations. Furthermore, we explain how the perturbative symmetry approach is naturally extended to treat equations on a periodic domain.