An Israeli court has returned a guilty verdict to a Gaza aid worker accused of funneling relief funds to Hamas, despite international outcry over the lack of evidence in the high-profile case that has dragged on for years.
Mohammad El Halabi, the former head of the Gaza office of the US charity World Vision, was arrested in 2016 after being accused by Israel’s Shin Bet security service of transferring tens of millions of dollars to the Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the interior of the Gaza Strip. Undress. He has since been in pre-trial detention.
He and World Vision have denied any wrongdoing. On Wednesday — more than 160 hearings and six years later — the District Court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba found Halabi guilty of all but one of the terrorism charges against him, including membership in a terrorist organization, financing of terrorist activities, having “transmitted information to the enemy” and possession of a weapon.
Sentencing is expected in the coming weeks. World Vision said Halabi would appeal the decision.
After Halabi’s arrest, her employer, independent auditors and the Australian government, one of World Vision’s major donors, found no evidence of wrongdoing or embezzlement.
The charity said the alleged embezzlement of $50 million [£41m] far exceeded its operating budget in Gaza for the previous decade, which amounted to $22.5 million [£19m]. The independent forensic audit conducted by international accounting firm Deloitte and DLA Piper, a global law firm, revealed that instead of helping Hamas, Halabi had actively worked to prevent funds from falling between the hands of the Islamist group.
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 release him.
The day before the verdict, the UN Human Rights Office had expressed “serious concerns” about the proceedings, in particular regarding the “lack of evidence”.
Sharon Marshall, a World Vision spokeswoman who has followed the case closely, said in a statement after the decision: “In our opinion, there were irregularities in the trial process” and that the verdict was based on “a lack of background 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 lawyer, Maher Hanna, called the judgment “totally political”, saying it had “nothing to do with the facts”.
The court ruling did not describe the diversion of any financial aid to Hamas, but rejected the charity’s argument that it had strong controls in place that prevented it.
He also referred to an alleged confession by Halabi which has not been made public. Hanna said the confession was based on notes taken by an investigator, who spoke to another prisoner who overheard them, and should not have been admitted as evidence as it was given under duress.
According to prisoners’ rights group Addameer, ‘many Palestinian detainees plead guilty to offenses they did not commit and waive their right to pursue legal proceedings’, often due to a lack of trust in the Israeli civilian and military justice systems to render verdicts in a timely manner.
With legal support from World Vision, however, Halabi was able to adopt what his father, Khalil, described as a “principled position”, refusing to admit to crimes he says he did not commit and avoiding further harm. to the reputation of World Vision.
The charity suspended operations in Gaza following Halabi’s arrest, ending psychosocial support for 40,000 children, as well as the provision of medical supplies and food aid.
The 15-year-old Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip has severely restricted the freedom of movement of the enclave’s 2 million residents and left them struggling with a collapsed health system, power outages electricity and very little drinking water.
Israel says it supports the work of aid organizations but is obliged to take steps to prevent donor funds from falling into the hands of armed groups like Hamas that do not recognize its existence and attack its citizens.