Top Official in Christian Aid Group Charged With Funneling Funds to Hamas

Shin Bet says head of World Vision's Gaza branch transferred funds to Hamas' military wing to build military positions and finance tunnel digging.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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Head of World Vision's Gaza branch Mohammad el-Halabi
Former Head of World Vision's Gaza branch Mohammad el-HalabiCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

The Islamist organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has infiltrated the international Christian-sponsored civilian aid group World Vision, to funnel tens of millions of dollars to Hamas’ military wing, Israel’s Shin Bet security service said on Thursday.

A gag order was lifted on the case involving the Shin Bet's June 16 arrest of Mohammed el-Halabi, director of World Vision’s Gaza branch, at the Erez crossing point, as he was headed back to Gaza from Israel.

Halabi was indicted on Thursday for a list of security offenses.

On paper, Hamas will soon be a less anti-Semitic and rejectionist organization. Credit: Reuters

The charge sheet says that Halabi, with a masters degree in engineering, joined Hamas's armed wing Izzedin al-Qassam in 2004 and was asked a year later to infiltrate a humanitarian organization so as "to be close to decision makers in a foreign organization, to be involved in the group and operate secretly to advance al-Qassam's interests."

The Shin Bet accuses Halabi of joining World Vision and sending its funds to Hamas’ military wing, some of it to fund digging military-related tunnels and to purchase weapons.

The Shin Bet alleges that a sum of $80,000 contributed by British donors to assist needy families, and support civilian projects in Gaza were used to build a Hamas position in the Gaza town of Beit Hanun, to pay Hamas activists’ salaries and bonuses members who had fought against Israel in the 2014 war.

Head of World Vision's Gaza branch Mohammad el-Halabi.Credit: World Vision

Palestinian media reported Halaby's arrest two months ago, when he was taken into custody at the Erez Crossing by the Shin Bet. His family said at the time they had no idea why he was arrested and what crimes he was being blamed for.

Halabi's attorney Mohammed Mahmoud told Haaretz on Thursday his client denies any links to Hamas, and that the fact the investigation has lasted 55 days proves there's a problem with the evidence.

Mahmoud said Halabi has told his investigators that the entire Gaza Strip is under absolute Hamas rule and armed members of the organization take whatever they want form the organization's storage depots.

"Israel can link anyone living in the Gaza Strip to Hamas. Mohammed (Halaby) does not belong to the organization nor is he affiliated with Hamas," Halabi's lawyer said.

Mahmoud said his client has "said explicitly under questioning that armed Hamas members came in two commercial vehicles with a machine gun mounted on it and under threat they took what they wanted. We will study the file and its evidence some more but I think this file started off very inflated and the balloon has since been deflated. "

Halabi’s actions were allegedly taken with the knowledge of other World Vision employees and sometimes with their involvement, the Shin Bet asserts, but were hidden from World Vision’s top officials.

About a month ago, after an order was issued extending Halabi’s detention, World Vision issued a statement saying that the group was were seeking his release. The group said Halabi was a reliable colleague for a period of a decade who had always worked hard and professionally.

The Shin Bet contends that about 60 percent of the funds from World Vision’s Gaza operations were diverted to Hamas. Under Shin Bet interrogation, Halabi is said to have provided considerable information about the methods used to transfer the funds.

Halabi would allegedly invite a fictitious public bidding process in which the funds were sent directly to Hamas. The Islamic group’s members would purportedly be listed as farmers entitled to assistance and their children as disabled so that they would also qualify for assistance.

Some of charity's own funds were said to have been transferred to Hamas to build military positions and finance tunnel digging, through the purchase of excavation equipment, iron, piping and building materials.

So, for example, Halabi is said to have initiated a project purportedly involving the construction of greenhouses when in actuality, the Shin Bet claims the greenhouses were used to conceal tunnel excavation sites.

Projects purportedly meant to assist Gaza fishermen would actually supply diving suits and motorboats to Hamas’ naval force.

In another instance, Shin Bet officials say World Vision trucks were sent from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing point and then on directly to Hamas warehouses rather than to World Vision storage facilities.

The cargo was said to have included food parcels designated for the needy, and personal hygiene kits.

Tens of thousands of dollars were funneled via World Vision to purchase weapons in Sinai for Hamas, when Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was Egypt's president, Shin Bet officials say.

The Israeli security service had been monitoring Halabi and his contacts with Hamas for some time prior to his arrest about a month and a half ago.

About two weeks ago, they raided World Vision’s offices in East Jerusalem, where they collected documents and internal correspondence.

World Vision's incoming president, Edgar Sandoval, was expected to meet in Tel Aviv about the case, with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai.

The organization's Gaza branch said after Halabi's arrest, that it "stands by Mohammad who is a widely respected and well regarded humanitarian, field manager and trusted colleague of over a decade"

"He has displayed compassionate leadership on behalf of the children and communities of Gaza through difficult and challenging times, and has always worked diligently and professionally in fulfilling his duties," the statement said.

A senior Shin Bet official told military reporters at a briefing it does not seek to interfere with the activities of humanitarian organizations.

“Our involvement with international organizations is a result of their interaction with Hamas,” the official said.

“[The humanitarian groups] do good work in a large number of areas of assistance and we have no quibble about their intentions. Hamas knew how to exploit the weak oversight of the organization [World Vision] regarding what happens with its resources,” he said.

“We weren’t investigating the organization, but rather Hamas activists. We have no suspicions against the organization.”

Other information obtained while investigating Halabi has raised suspicions that other humanitarian aid organizations, as well, including United Nations institutions, have exploited their jobs for Hamas. Details of these cases are still under gag order.

The Shin Bet said Halabi, was indirectly assigned missions by Hamas explosives mastermind, Mohammed Deif, after his secretly recruitment to Hamas’ military wing 12 years ago.

“This wasn’t a plot by one person. This was no trivial event but rather an organized plan secretly run by Hamas leadership,” the Shin Bet official said. “The careful planning, the secret work, the intention to take over from the inside, show Hamas’ daring and success.”

According to the Shin Bet, Hamas officials thought Halabi would be a good candidate to infiltrate an international aid group because he had worked previously for a UN program, and had helped Hamas then, too, by employing farmers who helped staff Hamas lookouts.

In 2005, Halabi was hired by World Vision, and in 2010, he was appointed head of the Gaza branch.

“From then until his arrest, he exploited his status in the organization and the organization’s resources to assistance the military wing of Hamas – not charitable associations, not civilian activity, but the military wing,” the Shin Bet official said.

Under interrogation, Shin Bet sources say, Halabi claimed that humanitarian assistance provided by the charity to Gaza went almost entirely to Hamas activists and their families, in violation of regulations binding aid groups in Gaza.

Halabi is said to have provided thousands of parcels of food, basic essentials and medical equipment to members of the military wing of Hamas and their families, on a monthly basis.

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