Will we ever know the truth about World Vision and Hamas?

Australia says it found no evidence that its World Vision funds were diverted to Hamas, as Israel alleges. But can the Israeli legal process be trusted?

File photo of Palestinian workers offloading a truck full of aid in the Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
File photo of workers offloading a truck full of aid in the Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Australian foreign ministry has not found any evidence that the Gaza head of a major humanitarian organization funneled Australian funds to Hamas, Australia’s ABC news reported Wednesday. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) conducted an investigation after Israel arrested a, Muhammed el-Halabi, the Palestinian head of World Vision’s Gaza office, and accused him of siphoning millions designated for humanitarian relief in Gaza to Hamas.

Israeli authorities held el-Halabi for 50 days before lifting a gag order on the fact that he had even been arrested, during which time Israel says he made a confession. For 25 of those days he was not allowed to see his lawyer, according to early reports. His lawyer has said he was physically beaten, and according to the ABC report, he was held in solitary confinement for six days – a practice that is associated with torture. Halabi has maintained his innocence and pled not guilty, refusing to accept a plea bargain sought by prosecutors.

World Vision is conducting its own internal forensic investigation into the issue, and has stated that it conducts scrupulous yearly audits to detect and prevent exactly this type of fraud. Australia and Germany both suspended their funding to date, for World Vision’s Gaza program in light of the arrest. The organization’s program mainly serves over 90,000 Palestinian children, Palestinians, including 40,000 in Gaza alone, according to its website.

Halabi’s case is currently being heard in Israel’s Beersheva District Court, which generally hears cases related to Gaza. A spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Emanuel Nahshon, told +972 Magazine that Israeli authorities had no comment on the DFAT report, arguing that the trial is not specifically about Australian funds but World Vision’s Gaza funding in general. The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency whose jurisdiction also extends to the West Bank and Gaza, doesn’t focus on NGOs, Nahshon said. “We only got to them through Halabi, because he works with Hamas,” he added, repeating the accusations against the Gazan man. “We have no focus on international non-governmental organizations.”

World Vision did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Israel has made similar accusations that relate to two other humanitarian organizations over the past year. In August 2016 Israel accused a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) employee, Waheed al-Bursh, of aiding Hamas. Israeli authorities also arrested and held Bursh for over a month, also under a gag order and barring contact with the outside world, including with a lawyer. He eventually accepted a plea deal after after the Shin Bet said the he had confessed, according to news reports. A seven-month prison sentence for aiding an illegal organization “without intention” was reduced to time served and eight months of probation. Bursh’s case also raised the specter of a diplomatic incident, +972 Magazine reported at the time, because as a United Nations employee, the UN asserted that he enjoyed limited immunity that only the secretary-general could lift.

In the third case, which broke just days ago, Israel arrested a Palestinian Gaza resident who works for a Turkish humanitarian organization, Tika, on similar charges: diverting aid to Hamas for armed attacks on Israel.

“We feel there’s an impression of a modus operandi of exploiting international organizations intended to help regular people, but to get their funds and material to Hamas,” said Nahshon.

Israel’s accusations regarding World Vision can be seen in the context of a broad campaign against civil society organizations in recent years, especially those organizations dealing with human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. Last year, the Israeli Knesset passed the so-called NGO law to constrain civil society organizations, tailored to almost exclusively target left-leaning groups or those defending human rights violations against Palestinians.

Earlier this week another law passed its final reading, this one tailored to restrict funding for civil society groups promoting political opposition. These laws followed years of intense rhetorical attacks on left-wing civil society organizations in the public sphere. The accelerated pace of accusations against international NGOs addressing Palestinian humanitarian may be an extension of intimidation of civil society – this time in the international sphere.

Israeli authorities have also been quick to publicize allegations against individual Palestinians and Palestinian society for acts of violence and terrorism in recent months, later found to be unproven or wrong. In a wave of 1,500 wildfires late last year, the Israeli prime minister and other senior government officials spoke freely of an “arson intifada.” No one was ever charged and no evidence of Arab arson-terrorism was ever produced.

In January, Israeli police killed a Bedouin citizen of Israel who had run over and killed a policeman with his jeep during a pre-dawn operation to raze the town of Umm al-Hiran. Official statements from police and senior government ministers immediately branded the man, a schoolteacher, as a terrorist and alleged ISIS ties, based on newspaper headlines they found in his home. Later investigations indicated that police shot at him mistakenly, causing him to accelerate and lose control of his vehicle, only then striking other officers. A government minister gave a “qualified apology,” for the death, but not for the unfounded accusations.

Which context, or narrative, the World Vision case ultimately falls into will not be clear until the trial has concluded. But even then, it seems unlikely either side will be convinced.