Israel's Allegations Against World Vision: Credible Charges or Political Ploy?

Presentation of the charges as a given fact, against the employee of an international aid organization, for passing funds to Hamas, raises suspicions that the goal is to weaken voices critical of Israel.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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A protest in the Gaza Strip in support of freeing detainee Mohammed Halabi of the World Vision organization, August 2016.
A protest in the Gaza Strip in favor of freeing detainee Mohammed Halabi, of World Vision, August 2016.Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

On Monday the international aid organization World Vision said that the total budget for its Gaza Strip branch during the last 10 years is much smaller than the sums Israel's Shin Bet security service claims were transferred to Hamas. But even before this statement was made, people working in humanitarian aid organizations, and associates and relatives of the detained World Vision employee, Mohammed Halabi, commented that the accusations are unreasonable.

The indictment against Halabi describes a sophisticated, far-sighted scheme involving the planting of a person within the organization, with the aim of misappropriating funds and materials, and passing them on to the military wing of Hamas. To accomplish this, Halabi would have had to overcome World Vision's meticulous and centralized system of allocating money and equipment, contracting suppliers and the regular oversight of accountants. He also would have had to evade the main office of his organization, in East Jerusalem. Workers at other aid organizations are familiar with this well-organized system, and therefore they have cast doubt on the Shin Bet's statements.

In conversations with Haaretz, Palestinian sources have noted two factors which they believe led to the apparently exaggerated and baseless charges against Halabi. The first involved a former employee of World Vision who was fired because he was simultaneously receiving a salary from the Palestinian Authority. He apparently bore a grudge against Halabi because he was fired, and sent the organization a complaint against Halabi that was subsequently examined. However, the man’s claims were found to be untrue.

Recently it was learned that the complainant sold his home in the Strip and moved to Egypt. Is there a connection between the sale of the house and move to Egypt, and the complaint? Did details of the complaint somehow reach the Shin Bet? There are a number of people in Gaza who assume such a connection exists.

The second factor: Halabi was detained for days in a room with asafir – Palestinians collaborators with the Shin Bet, who impersonate detainees for security reasons. He had a hard time dealing with their pressure and abusive methods, Haaretz has learned, and intentionally “confessed” to things that were impossible: for example, transfer of sums of money that would have been inappropriate in terms of the overall budget of the branch in Gaza where he worked and his responsibilities.

The charge-sheet itself is vague and does not mention the precise amount Halabi is suspected of transferring for the benefit of Hamas. The estimated “tens of millions of dollars” or sums of $7.5 million that he supposedly transferred annually from World Vision to the Islamist organization were mentioned only in reports in the Israeli media, probably following verbal briefings by Israeli officials.

According to World Vision’s announcement on Monday, over the past 10 years the total budget for the activities of the group’s branch in the Strip was $22.5 million.

From 2006 until 2014, Halabi was manager of operations for the northern branch of the charity in Gaza, which was smaller than the southern branch – as was its budget. During those years, however, he did not have access to money (one of the charges is that during 2012 and 2013, he allegedly transferred tens of thousands of dollars of the organization’s funds, in cash, to Hamas' military activists).

In late 2014, the two branches were combined and Halabi was named director of World Vision’s operations in the Strip. In this position, too, he would not have been able to choose suppliers on his own (as was implied in one of the clauses of the indictment). The latter are chosen by a committee of World Vision executives and officials, and final decisions are drafted and signed in the central office in Jerusalem.

The contracts that the Gaza manager is allowed to sign are also for small amounts, and must be determined within the framework of the projects and budget set in advance in the Jerusalem headquarters.

The presentation of the charges against Halabi as a given fact – as though he is already guilty – by means of a massive media campaign in Israel, has raised suspicions among employees of international relief organizations that the goal is political: to weaken them all as voices critical of Israeli policies.

For example, the Israel Defense Forces’ coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, wrote last Sunday that “after a long investigation, we discovered that Hamas is systematically using the money that world nations transfer to support the activities of international groups, such as the international organization World Vision in the Gaza Strip.” In other words: He is generalizing and casting suspicions on all such aid organizations.

That is why Robert Piper, the United Nations’ coordinator for humanitarian aid and development activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, said on Monday in a press release that the Shin Bet’s accusations “raise serious concerns for humanitarian organizations working in Gaza.”

“Redirecting relief away from its intended beneficiaries would be a profound betrayal of the trust put in a senior manager by his employer and by the organization’s donors. Everyone would pay a high price for such acts – beneficiaries and the wider aid effort alike. If proven by a due legal process, these actions deserve unreserved condemnation; Gaza’s demoralized and vulnerable citizens deserve so much better,” said Piper in his statement.

“We now need to wait for the legal process to take its course,” he added. “Mr. Halabi is entitled to his right to a fair trial. International human rights law requires the process to be prompt, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent.”

It would be appropriate for those involved in that legal process to remember that despite all efforts, in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, no international humanitarian group can work without some contacts with that Islamist organization. Among the many who need aid in the Strip, there are also Hamas supporters. But it is forbidden for the relief groups to differentiate between these supporters and other citizens, when it comes to providing food supplies, initiating agricultural projects or offering psycho-social treatment to children suffering from war trauma.

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