Israel accuses World Vision’s Gaza director of diverting cash to Hamas

Charity defends Mohammad El Halabi, who Israeli security forces say confessed during detention to being Hamas member

Israeli security forces have arrested a senior official of one of the worlds largest Christian charities, accusing him of funnelling tens of millions of dollars to Hamas, including 80,000 from British donations.

Mohammad El Halabi, director of the Gaza branch of World Vision, is alleged to have led a double life as a senior figure in the Islamist organisation and used his position to divert the humanitarian organisations funds and resources from the needy to benefit of Hamass terrorist and military activities.

According to the allegations from Shin Bet, Israels domestic security agency, the money given by British donors was used to build a military base, dig military tunnels and pay salaries in Hamass military wing.

Other donations were allegedly transferred to buy weapons for Hamas in the Sinai during the period that Mohamed Morsi was president of Egypt.

The announcement of Halabis arrest followed a raid on World Visions office this week. On Thursday, he was indicted on a number of charges, including funding terrorism.

An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said the charity was negligent for failing to notice what was going on.

World Vision quickly denied the claims against Halabi, whom it described as a well-regarded humanitarian. It also said all its operations were properly overseen and audited.

The Guardian was unable immediately to independently corroborate the claims against Halabi, who remains in custody.

According to a Shin Bet statement, Halabi was recruited by Hamass military wing in 2004 and received a very focused mission: to penetrate an international aid organisation and exploit its resources.

In fact, continued the statement, most of World Visions resources in the Gaza Strip originating in aid money from western states such as the United States, England and Australia were transferred to Hamas to strengthen its terrorist arm.

World Vision has an annual budget of just under $3bn (2.3bn) and employs about 46,000 people worldwide.

Israeli media reports said Halabi had been arrested about six weeks ago at the Erez crossing in Gaza and has been in custody ever since.

According to Shin Bet, Halabi admitted during interrogation to being a member of Hamas since his youth and that he was ordered to infiltrate the US-headquartered charity. Halabi is likely to have been denied access to a lawyer for long periods of his detention.

Halabi also allegedly implicated his father, a senior official in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which runs schools and refugee camps, as being a member of Hamas, and claimed he had used his position to help Hamass military activities.

A Palestinian takes part in a military-style exercise at a summer camp organised by the Islamic Jihad Movement in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip. Photograph: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

The claims if proved true would be a big coup for Israel, which has long sought to demonstrate the infiltration of institutions in Gaza by Hamass military wing.

According to the allegations levelled by Shin Bet, Halabi established and promoted humanitarian projects and fictitious agricultural associations that acted as cover for the transfer of monies to Hamas. Among examples listed were fictitious funding of greenhouse construction; restoration of agricultural lands; psychological and public health projects for Gaza residents; aid to fishermen; a treatment centre for the physically and mentally disabled; and farmers associations.

The statement said: All of these projects and associations were used to transfer funds to Hamas. According to El Halabi, the funds were intended mainly to strengthen the terrorist arm. As such, they were utilised to finance the digging of terror tunnels (not meant for smuggling but for attacks on communities in southern Israel and on Israeli security forces), the building of military bases such as one code-named Palestine (built in 2015 entirely from British aid money) and the purchase of weapons.

Some of the money went to pay the salaries of Hamas terrorists and, in some cases, senior Hamas terrorists took large sums of money for their own personal use.

World Vision said 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.

After Halabis arrest, World Vision had issued statements complaining about his detention without access to family or lawyers.

Responding to the specific allegation that 80,000 in UK donor funds had been diverted, World Vision UK said in a statement that its operations were properly overseen and audited.

On 15 June 2016, Mohammad El Halabi, the manager of operations for World Vision in Gaza, was arrested on his way home from routine meetings. On 4 August 2016, after 50 days in Israeli state detention, Mohammad was charged with providing support to Hamas. World Vision subscribes to the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality and therefore rejects any involvement in any political, military or terrorist activities and maintains its independence as a humanitarian aid agency committed to serving the poor, especially children.

World Vision has detailed procedures and control mechanisms in place to ensure that the funds entrusted to us are spent in accordance with applicable legal requirements and in ways that do not fuel conflict but rather contribute to peace.

World Vision programmes in Gaza have been subject to regular internal and independent audits, independent evaluations, and a broad range of internal controls aimed at ensuring that assets reach their intended beneficiaries and are used in compliance with applicable laws and donor requirements.

Christopher Gunness, a UNRWA spokesman, said: Senior Israel military sources raised this case with us recently and told us that no UNRWA staff members were involved. In addition, no evidence has been handed over to us by the Israeli authorities about an UNRWA staff member being involved in this case. The one staff member to whom reference has been made has retired from the agency. It remains UNRWAs policy always to investigate credible allegations of neutrality violations and where violations of staff rules and regulations are established, disciplinary action is taken as appropriate.

Richard Verber, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the claims raised serious questions about the fate of British aid for World Vision.

This raises serious questions about the mechanisms in place to prevent such an outrage occurring, Verber said. We also note that World Vision is supported by the Department for International Development, European commission and a host of other international organisations who we expect will investigate this case with the utmost urgency.

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