Aid worker held in Israel for 6 years insists he’s innocent
JERUSALEM (AP) — Nearly six years after Israel accused Mohammed el-Halabi of diverting tens of millions of dollars from an international charity to Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers, he has yet to be convicted in an Israeli court and is still being held in detention.
World Vision — a major Christian charity that operates around the world — as well as independent auditors and the Australian government have found no evidence of any wrongdoing. El-Halabi’s lawyer says he has rejected multiple plea bargains that would have allowed him to walk free years ago. Closing arguments ended in September.
The prosecution has requested another hearing Monday to extend his detention.
The explosive allegations resemble those made against six Palestinian rights groups last year. In each case, Israel publicly accused organizations of ties to militant groups without providing much evidence, sending shudders through their donors and partners and leading some to cut ties.
Critics say Israel often relies on questionable informants. They allege that Israel smears groups that provide aid or other support to Palestinians in order to shore up its nearly 55-year military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
Lior Haiat, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel stands by the allegations against el-Halabi, which are “well established and rely on concrete evidence.” He said the defense had deliberately prolonged the trial after the prosecution rested in May 2018, allegations rejected by el-Halabi’s lawyer.
“Israel does not aim to intimidate (non-governmental organizations), nor to keep them from operating in Gaza,” Haiat said. “But we definitely aim to prevent transfer of NGO money that should be helping the people of Gaza in to the hands of a terror organization like Hamas.”
After el-Halabi’s arrest, World Vision suspended its activities in Gaza, where over 2 million Palestinians live under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed when Hamas seized power nearly 15 years ago. Israel says the restrictions are needed to contain Hamas, while critics view them as a form of collective punishment.
World Vision said its entire Gaza budget over the previous 10 years was $22.5 million, making the alleged diversion of $50 million “hard to reconcile.” El-Halabi had been appointed manager of its Gaza operations in October 2014, less than two years before he was arrested.
World Vision worked with several Western donor countries to construct an independent audit. World Vision declined to name the auditors because of a non-disclosure agreement, but last year the Guardian reported that it was undertaken by the international accounting firm Deloitte and DLA Piper, a global law firm.
Brett Ingerman, a lawyer with DLA Piper who headed the investigation, confirmed its role in the audit. He said a team of around a dozen lawyers, including several former assistant U.S. attorneys, reviewed nearly 300,000 emails and conducted over 180 interviews. A forensic accounting firm scoured nearly every financial transaction at World Vision from 2010 until 2016, he said.
In July 2017, they submitted an over 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 non-disclosure agreement. The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the audit.
The report found no evidence that el-Halabi was affiliated with Hamas or had diverted any funds. In fact, Ingerman said it revealed the opposite.
“We had story after story of el-Halabi enforcing controls at World Vision and encouraging employees not to interact or transact with organizations that were even suspected of being affiliated with Hamas,” he said.
The Australian government conducted its own review, saying it found no evidence any of its funding to World Vision in the Palestinian territories was diverted to Hamas. Australia was the biggest single donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, providing some $4.4 million in the previous three fiscal years, according to its Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
World Vision, which operates in nearly 100 countries and annually distributes some $2.5 billion in aid, said it fully supports el-Halabi. “We’re waiting here for an acquittal because it’s the only logical outcome,” said Sharon Marshall, a spokeswoman for the organization.
“It’s far past time for him to be home with his family.”
Maher Hanna, el-Halabi’s defense lawyer, said Israeli authorities have offered him multiple plea bargains that would have allowed him to walk free in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser charges, a routine tactic in trials of Palestinians.
“He is not willing to admit to things he didn’t do,” Hanna said. The defense lawyer was allowed to see the classified evidence, which he declined to discuss, saying only that it was “extremely unreliable and problematic, and does not prove anything.”
Hanna also rejected any allegations of foot-dragging as “beyond unfair,” saying the court scheduled sessions months apart and made it difficult for him to call witnesses, including individuals named in the charge sheet.
He blamed Israel for the delay, saying it hoped to avoid the embarrassment of top officials having publicized explosive false allegations. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had released a video address repeating the charges at the time, saying they proved he cared more about the Palestinians than their own leaders.
“If facts matter, he will be cleared. If facts don’t matter, he will be convicted,” Hanna said.
Closing arguments wrapped up last September. El-Halabi is still being held in a prison in southern Israel.
“It makes a mockery of due process and the most basic fair trial notions to hold someone for nearly six years in pretrial detention based largely on secret evidence,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Even if el-Halabi is acquitted, the ordeal may deter other aid organizations from operating in the Palestinian territories.
“We haven’t been able to respond to major needs in Gaza, and that’s where some of the world’s most vulnerable children are,” said Marshall, the World Vision spokeswoman. “Other organizations that don’t have the organizational resources that we have to absorb a hit like this, they just can’t risk that kind of problem.”