Israeli court finds Gaza aid worker guilty of terrorism

BEERSHEBA, Israel — An Israeli court on Wednesday found a Gaza aid worker guilty of multiple terrorism charges in a high-profile case in which his employer, independent auditors and the Australian government said they found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Mohammed el-Halabi, who was the Gaza director for the international Christian charity World Vision from 2014 until his arrest in 2016, has been accused of diverting tens of millions of dollars to the Islamic militant group Hamas which rule the territory.

He and World Vision denied the allegations and an independent audit in 2017 also found no evidence of support for Hamas. His lawyer, Maher Hanna, said el-Halabi had refused on principle several plea bargain offers that would have allowed him to go free.

El-Halabi has not yet been convicted and World Vision said it would appeal the decision.

The District Court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba found el-Halabi guilty of multiple counts, including membership in a terrorist organization, providing information to a terrorist group, participating in prohibited military exercises and carrying a weapon.

The court did not describe the diversion of aid to Hamas, but it rejected World Vision’s argument that it had strong controls in place that prevented it. The court said the full 254-page decision is “confidential and cannot be made public”.

He appears to rely heavily on a confession by el-Halabi that has not been made public. His lawyer said the confession was given under duress to an informant and should not have been admitted as evidence.

The court said the confessions were “given in various ways” and “were detailed, consistent, true and contained many unique details”, including the names and ranks of Hamas members and descriptions of strategic locations in Gaza.

Speaking to reporters immediately after the verdict, Hanna said he had yet to read the full ruling. But he accused the judge of siding with the Israeli security forces and relying on evidence that has not been made public – and which he has previously described as unreliable.

“Everything the judge said, if I want to sum it up in one sentence: ‘Security forces can’t be wrong, they’re probably right,'” he told reporters.

Sharon Marshall, a World Vision spokeswoman who has followed the case closely, said the verdict was based on a “lack of substantial, publicly available evidence”.

“We support Mohammed’s intention to appeal the decision and call for a fair and transparent appeal process based on the facts of the case,” she said.

The Christian charity operates in nearly 100 countries and distributes some $2.5 billion in aid each year.

Israeli authorities have repeatedly said they have evidence that Hamas infiltrated the aid group and diverted funds from needy Gaza residents. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpeted the charges in an online video shortly after el-Halabi’s arrest.

Critics say Israel often relies on dodgy informants. They allege Israel is defiling groups that provide aid or other support to Palestinians in order to shore up its nearly 55-year military occupation of land the Palestinians want for a future state.

Israel says it supports the work of aid organizations but must prevent donor funds from falling into the hands of armed groups like Hamas that do not recognize its existence and attack its citizens.

After el-Halabi’s arrest, World Vision suspended its activities in Gaza, where more than 2 million Palestinians live under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed when Hamas took power nearly 15 years ago. Israel says the restrictions are necessary to contain Hamas, while critics see them as a form of collective punishment.

World Vision has worked with several Western donor countries to build an independent audit of its activities in Gaza. He declined to name the auditors due to a non-disclosure agreement, but last year The Guardian newspaper identified them as international accounting firm Deloitte and DLA Piper, a global law firm.

A team of a dozen attorneys, including several former US assistant attorneys, reviewed nearly 300,000 emails and conducted more than 180 interviews. Forensic auditors have gone through almost all of World Vision’s financial transactions from 2010 to 2016.

In July 2017, they submitted a more than 400-page report of their findings to World Vision, which shared it with donor governments. World Vision said it offered the report to Israel, but Israeli authorities refused to sign the nondisclosure agreement.

Brett Ingerman, a lawyer for DLA Piper who led the investigation, confirmed his involvement and told The Associated Press earlier this year that the report found no evidence that el-Halabi was affiliated with Hamas or embezzled funds. Instead, he said he discovered that el-Halabi had applied internal controls and ordered employees to avoid anyone suspected of having ties to Hamas.

The Australian government conducted its own review and came to similar conclusions. Australia was the biggest donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, providing some $4.4 million in the previous three fiscal years before el-Halabi’s arrest. There was no immediate comment on the verdict from Australian officials.

———

Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Isaac Scharf, an Associated Press reporter in Jerusalem, contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.