Israel sentences Gaza aid worker to 12 years after sham trial

Khalil El Halabi, the father of World Vision’s Gaza director Mohammed El Halabi, at his home in Gaza City on 30 August.

Youssef Abu Watfa APA images

Israel sentenced an aid worker from Gaza to 12 years in prison over charges of funneling international aid to Hamas after a sham trial lasting six years.

Mohammed El Halabi, the Gaza director for World Vision, an international Christian charity, intends to appeal the verdict and sentence.

World Vision has stood behind El Halabi and stated on Tuesday that “the arrest, six-year trial, unjust verdict and this sentence are emblematic of actions that hinder humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank.”

The charity said that “it adds to the chilling impact on World Vision and other aid or development groups working to assist Palestinians.”

World Vision suspended its operations in the Gaza Strip after El Halabi’s arrest.

Lynn Hastings, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Palestine, said that El Halabi’s conviction and the recent Israeli military raids and closure of several prominent rights groups will have an increasingly “chilling effect on civil society in Palestine.”

In a 254-page classified ruling in June, six years to the day after El Halabi’s arrest and after more than 160 court hearings, the aid worker was found guilty of transferring millions of dollars to Hamas.

“Serious concerns”

The Israeli judges based their verdict almost entirely on a confession that El Halabi purportedly made to an informant after he was allegedly beaten by Israeli interrogators.

The UN human rights office has “continuously raised serious concerns” in El Halabi’s case over “cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment that may amount to torture.”

The contents of the alleged confession, made “seemingly under duress,” is being kept in secret from the public, the UN office added in a March 2021 submission to the special rapporteur on human rights defenders.

The judges ruled as irrelevant testimony from World Vision staff and a comprehensive audit by the firm Deloitte commissioned by the charity.

That audit reviewed every payment made by World Vision over five years and “found no sign of missing funds and no evidence El Halabi was working for Hamas – in fact, they reported that he consistently sought to distance the organization from them,” as The Guardian reported.

El Halabi was arrested in June 2016 while returning to Gaza after attending meetings in Jerusalem and was held for 50 days without access to a lawyer.

Two months later, Israel raided World Vision’s office in Jerusalem and announced that El Halabi was charged with diverting some $50 million over several years.

A former regional manager with the charity told media that the $50 million that El Halabi is alleged to have diverted “is completely incomprehensible, given that nowhere near that amount of money was committed to the programs in Gaza in the 10-year period in question.”

During his trial, El Halabi turned down numerous plea deals, refusing to admit guilt for a crime he insists he did not commit and, in the process, tarnish the reputation of World Vision.

A plea deal would have prevented Israel from having to prove its claims against El Halabi in court.

Failing to secure a plea deal, Israel instead resorted to convicting El Halabi on the basis of secret evidence.

Secret evidence

Israel’s manufactured case against El Halabi based on secret evidence would anticipate the “terror group” designations it made against several prominent Palestinian human rights, feminist and social services groups based in the West Bank last year.

Israel accuses the groups of funneling funds to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist political party with an armed resistance wing.

A classified dossier prepared by Israel’s secret police supposedly justifying the terror designations relies on the testimony of Palestinian detainees who may have been tortured.

Israel distributed the dossier to European diplomats in May last year in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade them to stop funding the Palestinian groups.

Following the sentencing of El Halabi on Tuesday, the European Union said that it regretted “the outcome of a judicial process which has been incompatible with fair trial standards.”

The EU added that it “will follow El Halabi’s appeal before the Supreme Court closely.”

Such pledges made by the EU and others to do no more than passively observe, rather than put meaningful pressure on Israel, have seemingly only encouraged Tel Aviv’s persecution of aid workers, human rights defenders and organizations strengthening the resilience of Palestinians living under Israeli military dictatorship.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the UN human rights office protested Israel’s refusal to issue or renew visas for its staff.

“In 2020, the 15 international staff of my Office in Palestine – which has been operating in the country for 26 years – had no choice but to leave,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, stated.

“Subsequent requests for visas and visa renewals have gone unanswered for two years. During this time, I have tried to find a solution to this situation, but Israel continues to refuse to engage.”

Bachelet added that “Israel’s treatment of our staff is part of a wider and worrying trend to block human rights access to the occupied Palestinian territory.”

“This raises the question of what exactly the Israeli authorities are trying to hide,” she said.



Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.