An internal review of the accusations that an employee of the Christian-sponsored civilian aid group World Vision used donor funds to support Hamas in the Gaza Strip has not found any evidence that he diverted Australian government aid, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on said Tuesday.
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The examination was undertaken by the Australian Foreign Ministry in August 2016 after Israel indicted Mohammed El Halabi, director of World Vision’s Gaza branch, on allegations of funneling tens of millions of dollars to Hamas’ military wing, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Halabi, who was arrested in June 2016 at the Erez crossing point as he was headed back to Gaza from Israel, is charged with diverting humanitarian aid money, both government aid and donations, to building tunnels in Gaza, purchasing weapons and paying the salaries of Hamas militants. Halabi's trial is still underway in Israel.
The Australian government has given more than $3 million in aid to World Vision projects in Gaza over the past three years.
"So far, our own ongoing forensic audit has not uncovered any money subverted and to hear DFAT say their investigation hasn't either is consistent and is very good news," World Vision chief advocate Tim Costello told ABC News.
The DFAT said it would continue to suspend government aid to World Vision until they can consider the results of Halabi's trial and reviews being undertaken by World Vision.
Halabi has refused to sign a plea bargain agreement offered by Israel, saying he is innocent and has denied all the charges against him. World Vision has continued to support him, calling him a "trusted employee," and say they have found no evidence of any funds having been diverted.
He is accused of diverting over $7 million a year, or 60 percent of the annual budget for World Vision's Gaza branch, to Hamas. World Vision has disputed the allegations, saying in a statement on August 8 that its total operating budget in Gaza over the past 10 years was around $22.5 million, making the alleged diversion of nearly $50 million "hard to reconcile."
The indictment states that Halabi, who holds a masters in engineering, joined Hamas's armed wing, Iz al-Din 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."
Halabi allegedly would order 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.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry had no comment on the ABC report.