Next week, after the Jewish holidays end, the trial of Mohammed El Halabi will resume in Be’er Sheva District Court. It’s either/or: Either El Halabi is one of Israel’s greatest and most dangerous enemies ever, as the indictment against him indicates – or he’s the victim of a cynical, cruel propaganda system that is exploiting him to stop the influx of international humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. Either he diverted tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of tons of iron to Hamas for tunnel-digging projects, as Israel’s Shin Bet security service maintains, or he’s a “humanitarian hero,” as the United Nations designated him in 2014. Either he’s a long-time Hamas “plant” in World Vision, the huge global aid organization whose Gaza and other branches he headed, or he’s a person who has devoted his life to providing humanitarian aid to farmers, disabled children and cancer patients in the Strip.
After 52 days of interrogation by the Shin Bet – which included severe torture, according to his father, Khalil El Halabi – and more than three years in an Israeli prison, El Halabi, who used to crisscross the world, address parliaments and enter Israel itself frequently, will next Thursday be brought again from Ramon Prison in Mitzpeh Ramon to face a judicial tribunal headed by Be’er Sheva District Court deputy president Natan Zlotchover. El Halabi has been brought into the courtroom 127 times since his initial arrest in June 2016; his testimony went on for nearly a year and he denied all the charges against him.
According to his lawyer, Maher Hanna, from Nazareth, when his trial began, El Halabi was offered a plea bargain that included a confession of guilt and three years in prison, but he refused. He insisted he was completely innocent. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Khalil is devoting all his time to his son’s struggle. “My heart is broken,” he told me this week.
El Halabi’s story has been reported relatively widely in international media outlets but in Israel he is a sort of “Inmate X,” with very little published about the case.
Khalil El Halabi, 65, worked for UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency, for 40 years as an education supervisor. This week he sent me his photograph together with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at a 2010 conference in the Al-Mathaf Hotel in Gaza City. Mohammed, his second son, was born in 1978 in the Jabalya refugee camp, is married to Ulla and has five children; the youngest, 4-year-old Faris, knows his father only from behind bars.
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In 2003, Mohammed obtained a master’s degree in civil engineering from the Islamic University of Gaza; he worked in the private sector and later in the UN’s development agency. In 2006 he joined the U.S.-based, Christian, World Vision organization, one of the world’s largest international aid groups, and in short order became its regional director, covering the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
In an interview published on the organization’s website in August 2014, El Halabi related what had drawn him to the field of humanitarian aid: “I was born in Jabalya UNRWA refugee camp in Gaza. It is the densest area in the Middle East and there I experienced the most critical times for Gaza people.” He added, “I met the children whose houses were totally demolished and lost at least one of their beloved people, yet they are singing for peace.”
El Halabi left the engineering profession after “seeing injured and killed children, and knowing my own children have been traumatized by the violence, [and I] decided to fully dedicate my life to helping people and children to restore their lives.”
At that time, World Vision was helping 1,500 children as part of the Child Friendly Spaces program he established in the Strip to protect youngsters in emergencies, along with 350 wounded children in hospitals. El Halabi and his staff also “helped 8,000 parents in psychological first-aid training, which significantly reduces the stress on their children during the war,” he said in the same interview. This was the period of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.
Photographs from the past show a stocky, smiling young man visiting wheelchair-bound youngsters, disabled athletes and farmers in their Gaza greenhouses; Khalil says his son’s work also often took him abroad. Indeed, one of Mohammed’s last missions was to address the parliament in Canberra; Australia is an important donor to projects he managed. He also traveled extensively in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – with Israeli authorization, of course. On June 15, 2016, when returning from a meeting with his staff in Jerusalem, he was taken into custody at the Erez border crossing into Gaza. His family only learned about the arrest three days later.
Thus began the ordeal of Citizen H. This week marked his 40th month in detention, during which he has been transferred among a number of prisons. His family is permitted to visit him only once every two months, and only three relatives are allowed to come each time, including the children. They try to take little Faris as often as possible, so he will get to know his father. It’s a grueling 12-hour trip from Gaza for a mere half-hour visit conducted through an armor-plated window. As a result of the torture El Halabi endured – including sleep deprivation, being hung from the ceiling and beatings, his father says – his hearing is 40-percent impaired, which makes the phone conversations through the window during visits even more difficult.
Attorney Hanna, who visits him occasionally in prison, says his client is strong and determined, and that his spirit has not flagged. Mohammed himself always tells his father in visits that he is certain that justice will prevail.
El Halabi’s trial is being held partly in camera. On November 22, 2017, he was brought before the Supreme Court for a hearing on the repeated extension of his remands, because there had been so many of them. The revised indictment against him that had been filed early that year includes the following charges, some of which are very serious: contact with a foreign agent, membership in a terror organization, aiding the enemy in wartime, using property for the purposes of terrorism, passing information to the enemy, possession of arms and ammunition, and prohibited military training.
“The accused exploited his position and status in World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization, to advance the goals of Hamas,” the indictment states.
El Halabi has also been accused of diverting between hundreds and thousands of tons of iron, originally intended for agricultural purposes, to Hamas for construction of tunnels. He also allegedly “marked coordinates in Israel for operations by the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades” – the Islamist organization’s military wing. Moreover, he is accused of transferring funds for the purchase of equipment for Hamas’ naval commandos, and even of giving the organization information about the security arrangements at the Erez crossing.
In a briefing for reporters after the indictment was filed, a Shin Bet official claimed El Halabi had transferred tens of millions of dollars to Hamas. A greenhouse project he had managed was allegedly intended to conceal excavation sites for tunnels; a rehabilitation program for fishermen was actually a cover for purchasing diving suits and motorboats for Hamas’ naval force; farmers he hired were lookouts for Hamas. He even allegedly transferred thousands of food parcels to Hamas activists and their families. According to the charge sheet, El Halabi was recruited by Hamas as early as 2004 to “infiltrate” World Vision.
For his part, Hanna denies all the charges against his client: He is convinced that the purpose of the indictment is solely to intimidate aid groups and effectively halt humanitarian assistance to Gaza, so that its residents will eventually rise up against Hamas, as Israel perhaps hopes for. Indeed, since El Halabi’s arrest, World Vision has suspended its operations in the Strip, until the trial is over. But a comprehensive investigation by the organization itself, at a cost of $3 million, according to Hanna, exonerated El Halabi completely: No wrongdoing was found on his part.
World Vision’s current director in Israel and the territories, Alex Snary, wrote: “My dear friend and colleague Mohammed El Halabi exposed the total travesty of Israeli ‘justice’ for Palestinians. Three years of torture and detention, over 120 court appearances and Israel still has no actual evidence to support their outrageous allegations.” Snary describes El Halabi as “a man with a big heart,” especially when it comes to children, adding, “It’s long overdue for Israel to admit they made a mistake, stop embarrassing its judicial system and release him to return to his family and the work he loves – improving the lives of suffering children.”
In August 2016, two months after El Halabi’s arrest, senior diplomats from Western countries in Israel protested to then-Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid that they had not been given any information or evidence about the possible diversion of aid funds to Hamas. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced in March 2017 that, following an investigation, it had concluded there was nothing to suggest improper use of funding or of aid to the Hamas-ruled Gaza government.
Last June 14, independent Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein published the results of his investigation on the website +972: He, too, concluded that, despite the lengthy period that had elapsed, the charges against El Halabi remained unsubstantiated.
Hanna, the lawyer, notes that a considerable portion of World Vision’s budget has always been earmarked to facilitate close supervision of the group’s financial activities and contractual bidding processes. He adds that the total amount donated to its activities in Gaza over the years is far smaller than the sums El Halabi is accused of funneling to Hamas.
Hanna is also highly critical of the legal restrictions he himself has been subject to: Israel has barred him from entering the Strip to meet with defense witnesses, a situation that led him to petition the Supreme Court. The court’s response is expected in December – after the conclusion of El Halabi’s trial. Hanna has also demanded to have several witnesses be brought to Israel to testify, but the authorities are blocking that avenue as well. His request to have them testify via video conference is expected to be addressed in next week’s court session in Be’er Sheva. In the meantime, the defense continues to present its case.
Hanna: “Everything you touch in this trial is a ‘creative work.’ I am not against the state. I want our judicial system to be the best and most just, but I don’t even get transcripts of hearings that I conducted.” El Halabi understands only about half of what is said in court, Hanna says, because of faulty translation. The Shin Bet approved only one interpreter for the proceedings, for security reasons, but she is not proficient, the lawyer says.
World Vision representatives have attended some of the hearings. None of El Halabi’s family is present, of course, because they live in the Gaza Strip. There is a gag order on the principal piece of evidence in the trial, for security reasons. According to Hanna, no firm, objective proof of the charges has been presented in court so far – which may attest to the protracted nature of the proceedings.
Said Khalil El Halabi, this week, “We miss Mohammed. Gaza misses Mohammed. Every day I try to stir interest and awareness of my son’s case. When I was an education supervisor for UNRWA, I introduced a special chapter on the Holocaust into the curriculum. I told everyone that injustice like this is above and beyond any political dispute. I never expected that my son would encounter such gross lack of justice.
“Please write my message to Benjamin Netanyahu: Your prime minister is worried that he won’t get a fair trial – Mohammed also wants a fair trial. His fate is eating me from within. I want to hold him close to my chest and tell him how proud I am of all he has done for Gaza and for the Palestinian people, without doing harm to Israel. Please, treat Mohammed as though he were your son.”