Israel is intensifying its assault on humanitarian aid efforts in the besieged Gaza Strip, with accusations against officials from two more international agencies.
Meanwhile, the global Christian charity World Vision has rebutted Israeli claims that its Gaza director could have diverted tens of millions of dollars to the Palestinian resistance organization Hamas.
Israel detained Mohammad El Halabi in June, interrogated him for more than 50 days and then charged him with diverting up to $50 million to the military wing of Hamas.
There are also new indications that Israel’s Shin Bet secret police tortured Halabi to extract the confessions it is relying on.
On Monday, Kevin Jenkins, president and CEO of World Vision International, said his organization is “seeking to understand the truth behind the allegations laid against Mohammad El Halabi,” and had suspended operations in Gaza pending investigations.
Jenkins added that “we still have not seen any of the evidence.”
“World Vision’s cumulative operating budget in Gaza for the past ten years was approximately $22.5 million, which makes the alleged amount of up to $50 million being diverted hard to reconcile,” Jenkins said. He also noted Halabi’s signing authority to spend funds was limited to to just $15,000.
“He was afraid they would kill him”
Faced with these figures – which severely undermine the credibility of the Israeli accusations – an Israeli government official told Australia’s ABC network that the numbers were irrelevant.
“It’s like when you catch a serial killer, the question of whether he killed 50 people or 25 people is not really relevant is it?” Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said.
This kind of reckless statement is adding to concerns among observers.
“That’s an absolutely ridiculous statement from Emmanuel Nahshon,” Jacob Burns, a researcher at Amnesty International, tweeted. “Serious charges require serious (and fair) trial.”
“In a system where ‘confessions’ are often obtained by torture, serious [questions] have to be asked when other evidence doesn’t match ‘confession,’” Burns added.
While Shin Bet has long systematically used torture when interrogating Palestinians, there are new indications that World Vision’s Halabi was also a victim.
The CEO of World Vision Australia had already expressed concern that Halabi had been held for more than 20 days without access to a lawyer, and for more than 50 days without seeing family or World Vision staff.
Muhammad Mahmoud, the lawyer representing Halabi, told the journalist Ben White, writing for Al Jazeera, that his client was not allowed to see a lawyer for 21 days.
“They beat him a lot,” Mahmoud said, adding that Halabi “denies all allegations” made against him, including the so-called confession.
Samir Zaqout, assistant director of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza, the group that first provided a lawyer to Halabi, also made allegations of torture.
“He told our lawyer that they beat him and bound him to a small chair,” Zaqout told Al Jazeera. “He was afraid they would kill him.”
Additional details reported by Haaretz indicate that Halabi had previously been the subject of a spurious complaint by a former World Vision employee fired for simultaneously receiving a salary from the Palestinian Authority.
World Vision reportedly rejected the disgruntled man’s complaint against Halabi as untrue, but Haaretz suggests his accusations may have found their way to the Shin Bet.
According to Haaretz: “Halabi was detained for days in a room with asafir – Palestinians collaborators with the Shin Bet, who impersonate detainees for security reasons.”
“He had a hard time dealing with their pressure and abusive methods, Haaretz has learned, and intentionally ‘confessed’ to things that were impossible,” the newspaper added. This included “transfer of sums of money that would have been inappropriate in terms of the overall budget of the branch in Gaza where he worked and his responsibilities.”
UN staffer arrested
Israel has also made good on earlier predictions that its campaign to paint aid agencies in Gaza as accomplices in what it terms “terrorism” would soon expand.
On Tuesday, Shin Bet revealed that it had detained an official with the United Nations Development Program.
Shin Bet arrested Wahid al-Bursh, a 38-year-old from the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, last month accusing him of various activities supportive of Hamas, the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported.
In a statement, UNDP confirmed that al-Bursh had been detained while returning to the occupied Gaza Strip from present-day Israel.
“It is alleged by the Israeli authorities that Mr. al-Bursh complied with a request from a senior Hamas individual to transport 300 tons of rubble from a UNDP rubble removal project site to a Hamas-run location at the Northern Gaza Hamas-operated port,” the statement said.
UNDP said it would “cooperate fully” with the occupation forces, despite Israel’s well-documented use of torture, though it added that al-Bursh “should be accorded all due legal process and has the right to a fair trial.”
Also on Monday, Save the Children said it was looking into Israeli claims that one of its staffers in Gaza had been recruited by Hamas.
In its charge sheet against World Vision’s Halabi, Israel claimed that in 2014 Halabi recruited a staffer from Save the Children to join the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas.
The AFP news agency reported that it attempted to contact the man, but he declined to comment.
Save the Children said it had “not been notified or contacted by the [Israeli] authorities on the details of the allegations.”
Israel is engaging in social media campaigns to smear and ridicule aid agencies, using cartoons and other propaganda such as this one mocking UNDP. This Israeli behavior only supports earlier analysis that it is engaged in a witch hunt.
Jacob Burns, the Amnesty International researcher, urged Israeli officials to “cease all reporting of allegations as fact (and their use in propaganda) in order to avoid prejudice of the trial” of World Vision’s Halabi.
But given Israel’s long history of abusive and authoritarian practices, few Palestinians would expect anything resembling a fair trial at Israel’s hands.
Israel’s expanding assault on aid agencies looks like an effort to put them on the defensive and bring their activities in Gaza under even tighter control.
This would further hamper reconstruction since Israel’s assault two years ago, which is already proceeding at a glacial pace due to Israel’s ongoing blockade.
World Vision, for instance, has long raised Israel’s ire. Like many other international organizations, Ben White notes, the charity “has been clear in its call for Israel to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip, and has also spoken up on other issues, such as the forcible transfer of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.”