The Christian relief, development and advocacy organization World Vision says it is “shocked” by Israeli charges that its Gaza director funnelled tens of millions of dollars to the military wing of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.
“Based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true,” World Vision said in a statement on Thursday.
The allegations come amid an ongoing Israeli campaign against nongovernmental organizations.
The charity confirmed that on 15 June its Gaza operations director Mohammad El Halabi “was arrested on his way home from routine meetings.”
On 4 August, “after 50 days in Israeli state detention, Mohammad was charged with providing support to Hamas,” it added.
Founded in 1950, World Vision has worked with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1975.
In recent months the group says it has carried out extensive work in Gaza, including rehabilitating large tracts of agricultural land, building greenhouses, irrigation and water wells and providing equipment to hundreds of fishermen whose livelihoods have been severely disrupted by constant Israeli military harassment and attacks.
Shin Bet accusations
The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported that Halabi was detained by Israeli forces as he attempted to return to Gaza through the Erez crossing from present-day Israel.
According to Haaretz, Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency has accused Halabi of funneling “tens of millions of dollars” of World Vision resources to Hamas, “some of it to fund digging military-related tunnels and to purchase weapons.” Citing Shin Bet, The New York Times put the figure at $43 million allegedly funneled to Hamas in just six years.
Israel has not explained how such astonishing sums could have gone missing without the charity noticing, especially in Gaza where relatively small sums of development money could have a potentially massive impact.
Shin Bet claims that $80,000 contributed by UK donors for needy families and to support civilian projects “were used to build a Hamas position in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, to pay Hamas activists’ salaries and bonuses [for] members who had fought against Israel in the 2014 war,” Haaretz said.
Halabi’s attorney Muhammad Mahmoud told the newspaper that his client denies any ties to Hamas and that the fact the investigation took more than 50 days indicates a “problem” with the evidence.
Shin Bet has routinely used torture in interrogations of Palestinians.
World Vision said in its statement that it 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.”
Halabi’s lawyer told Haaretz that some allegations appeared to be linked to an incident allegedly in which “armed Hamas members came in two commercial vehicles with a machine gun mounted on it and under threat they took what they wanted” from World Vision stores.
“We will study the file and its evidence some more but I think this file started off very inflated and the balloon has since been deflated,” the lawyer added.
Israel has a history of making baseless allegations that various organizations are tied to Hamas.
The accusations regarding World Vision also come months after Amnesty International expressed concern over harassment and intimidation by Israel aimed at hampering and discrediting the work of Palestinian and Israeli human rights defenders and nongovernmental organizations.
The arrest of Halabi may be an ominous sign of a broader crackdown specifically targeting humanitarian workers in Gaza.
“Other information obtained while investigating Halabi has raised suspicions that other humanitarian aid organizations, as well, including United Nations institutions, have exploited their jobs for Hamas,” Haaretz reported, citing Shin Bet sources.
It said that details of these cases are under Israeli gag orders.
The arrest was first reported by the blog ThinkProgress on 1 August.
ThinkProgress revealed that a senior Gaza staffer – presumably Halabi – had been held for more than 40 days “without evidence or trial” and that occupation forces had searched World Vision’s offices in East Jerusalem.
The charity works closely with UN agencies and the Red Cross and has received funding from the US and European governments.
“The detention of a World Vision employee and subsequent raids potentially complicates the historically strong relationship between Israel and evangelical Christians in the United States,” ThinkProgress commented.