An Israeli court has found a Gaza aid worker accused of channeling aid to Hamas guilty, despite international outrage at the lack of evidence in the high-profile case, which has dragged on for years.
Mohammad El Halabi, the former head of the Gaza office of US-based charity World Vision, was arrested in 2016 after he was accused by the Israeli security service Shin Bet of giving tens of millions of dollars to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip controlled to have transferred strips. Since then he has been in custody.
Both he and World Vision have denied any wrongdoing. On Wednesday – more than 160 court hearings and six years later – the district court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba found Halabi guilty on all but one of the terrorism charges against him, including membership in a terrorist organization, financing of terrorist activities, “sending information to the enemy” and possession of a weapon.
The verdict is expected in the next few weeks. World Vision said Halabi will appeal the verdict.
After Halabi’s arrest, his employers, independent auditors, and the Australian Government, a major donor to World Vision, found no evidence of wrongdoing or diversion of funds.
The charity said the alleged diversion was $50 million [£41m] has far exceeded its operating budget for Gaza for the past decade, which totaled $22.5 million [£19m]. The independent forensic review, conducted by international accounting firm Deloitte and DLA Piper, a global law firm, found Halabi had been actively working to prevent funds from falling into the hands of the Islamist group, rather than helping Hamas.
Much of the evidence against Halabi has been kept secret over the years due to “security concerns” cited by Israeli prosecutors. UN human rights experts, diplomats and NGOs have repeatedly called on Israel to grant Halabi immediate access to a fair trial or to release him.
The day before the verdict was announced, the UN Human Rights Office expressed “serious concern” about the trial, particularly at the “lack of evidence”.Palestinians protest in Gaza City in solidarity with Mohammad El Halabi. Photo: APAImages/Rex/Shutterstock
Sharon Marshall, a World Vision spokeswoman who has been following the case closely, said in a statement after the verdict, “In our view, there were irregularities in the trial process” and that the verdict was based on “a lack of substance and publicly available evidence.”
“We support Mohammad’s intention to appeal the decision and call for a fair and transparent appeal process based on the facts of the case,” she said.
Halabi’s attorney, Maher Hanna, called the verdict “completely political” and said it “had nothing to do with the facts.”
The court’s decision did not detail the diversion of all financial aid to Hamas, but dismissed the charity’s argument that it had tight controls in place that prevented it from doing so.
It also referenced an alleged confession by Halabi that was not made public. Hanna said the confession was based on notes taken by an investigator who spoke to another prisoner who heard it and should not have been admitted into evidence because it was given under duress.
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According to detainee rights group Addameer, “many Palestinian detainees are pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit and are waiving their right to proceed with judicial proceedings,” often due to a lack of confidence in Israeli civil and military judicial systems to act fairly and in a timely manner judgements.
However, with World Vision’s legal support, Halabi was able to represent what his father Khalil described as “fundamental” by refusing to admit to crimes he allegedly did not commit and further damaging his reputation World Vision avoided.
The charity suspended operations in Gaza after Halabi’s arrest, halting mental health care for 40,000 children and the provision of medical care and food aid.
The 15-year-old Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza has severely restricted the movement of the enclave’s 2 million residents, leaving them to struggle with a collapsed health system, power outages and very little clean water.
Israel says it supports the work of aid agencies but is forced to take steps to prevent funded funds from falling into the hands of armed groups like Hamas, who don’t recognize its existence and attack its citizens.