Israel’s never-ending trial of a humanitarian hero

Palestinians call on Israel to release Mohammed El Halabi in Gaza City in March 2017.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Mohammed El Halabi, a charity worker living in Gaza arrested by Israel in 2016, is on a seemingly unending trial, having been detained for more than half a decade and his case going to court around 170 times.

This week, Israel’s highest court extended his detention for the 23rd time, despite the European Union calling for his immediate release.

El Halabi’s plight is an example of how Israel uses its legal system to assassinate the reputations of Palestinians and Palestinian groups who work with and receive funding from third states and international organizations.

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

In both cases, the aim appears to be isolating Palestinians, cutting off humanitarian aid and international funding, and consolidating Israeli control.

Lack of fair trial

El Halabi was program director of the Gaza branch of World Vision, an international Christian humanitarian aid charity with an annual budget of some $2 billion, at the time of his arrest at Erez checkpoint.

Israel alleged that El Halabi was involved in diverting humanitarian funds to armed groups in Gaza. The detained aid worker and father of five children under the age of 18 was denied access to a lawyer for 50 days and held incommunicado.

The UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights has “continuously raised serious concerns” in El Halabi’s case over “cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment that may amount to torture.”

The UN office has also stressed the “lack of fair trial guarantees, including disregard of the presumption of innocence and lack of impartiality of the court, extensive use of secret evidence and classification of court proceedings undermining the right to a defense.”

Israel’s only piece of evidence is an alleged confession made “seemingly under duress” that the prosecution has referred to in public hearings, while the content of this alleged confession is being kept in secret from the public, the UN office adds.

Aid suspended

The Australian government, which provided around a quarter of World Vision’s budget in Gaza between 2014 and 2016, commissioned an external audit that “found no evidence of diversion of funds and no material evidence that El Halabi was part of or working for Hamas.”

Despite this, Australia suspended its funding to World Vision in Gaza, which in turn has suspended its operations in the besieged territory until the conclusion of El Halabi’s trial.

This means that tens of thousands of children in Gaza who would have benefited from World Vision’s projects focusing on their psycho-social needs did not receive that support.

It also means that the charity is no longer providing “medical and other supplies to hospitals, food relief and reestablishing agricultural livelihoods,” as Kevin Jenkins, the president of World Vision International, stated in 2016.

Days after Israel announced its allegations against El Halabi, Germany and Australia, apparently taking Israel at its word, suspended funding for World Vision programs in Gaza and Australia threatened to cut some $40 million to the organization as a whole.

Jenkins said that the organization’s cumulative budget in Gaza for the past decade prior to El Halabi’s arrest was approximately $22.5 million, making Israel’s allegations that El Halabi diverted up to $50 million “hard to reconcile.”

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.”

Nevertheless, World Vision commissioned an auditing and a legal firm to review its spending, reportedly at a cost of $7 million.

The exhaustive year-long investigation turned up “no sign of any missing funds, and no evidence” that El Halabi was “working for Hamas – in fact, they reported that he consistently sought to distance the organization from them.”

The Israeli authorities refused to view the findings of the audit, according to The Guardian.

If Israel’s allegations were true, it would likely be “the biggest aid money heist in history,” as The Guardian put it.

El Halabi, who was hailed as a humanitarian hero by the United Nations in 2014, faces around a decade of imprisonment. He has 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.

An Israeli judge, pressing El Halabi to accept a plea deal in 2017, told him that he has “little chance” of being found not guilty.

The Australian outlet ABC reported at the time that “sources close to El Halabi’s legal team” said that “they believe the prosecution does not have the evidence to back up the explosive claims” against the aid worker.

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

As Tim Costello, former CEO of World Vision Australia, pointed out, “if Israel had any evidence to support their accusations, [El Halabi’s] trial would have been completed well within a year.”

Costello observes that accusations like those against El Halabi have led Israel’s allies like the US and Australia to reduce their aid to Palestinians.

“In recent years Australia has cut all bilateral aid through the World Bank to Palestine, halved our commitment through UN bodies, and has just axed the major NGO partnership program that was doing great work supporting farmers throughout Palestine,” Costello adds.

Meanwhile, international aid agencies cannot deal directly with Hamas authorities in Gaza since the group, which refuses to normalize relations with Israel and renounce armed resistance ahead of national liberation, is proscribed by the governments where they are based.

Those same governments oppose any efforts to hold Israel accountable for its crimes against Palestinians. And so Israel repeatedly targets and destroys civilian infrastructure in Gaza during its frequent assaults on the territory – creating additional need for humanitarian aid.

Charity workers targeted

El Halabi isn’t the only charity worker in Gaza targeted by Israel in recent years.

In the months leading up to El Halabi’s arrest, Israel detained five Palestinians employed by Qatar Charity, an organization “that works in more than 50 countries and has partnered with, among others, the United Nations, Doctors Without Borders, and the United States Agency for International Development,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Israel added Qatar Charity to its list of prohibited groups in 2008 “for allegedly providing financial support to Hamas, an allegation frequently leveled against charitable organizations that operate in Gaza,” Human Rights Watch adds.

Najwan Odeh, Qatar Charity’s administrative head, was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for affiliation with an “unlawful association” and, as part of a plea agreement, was prohibited for one year from “commit[ing] the offense of which she was convicted,” effectively banning her from returning to her job.

Israel also detained Waheed al-Bursh, a Palestinian official with the United Nations Development Program, for allegedly providing rubble from buildings bombed by Israel for a maritime jetty being built Hamas.

Al-Bursh accepted a plea deal in which the most serious charges against him were dropped.

He pled guilty to “rendering services to an illegal organization without intention” and upon sentencing was released with six months served. He can no longer work for the UN because of his conviction.

In 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu published a video on YouTube in which he claimed that he as Israel’s prime minister cared “more about Palestinians than their own leaders do.”

He added that “a few days ago the world learned that Hamas, the terrorist organization that rules Gaza, stole millions of dollars from humanitarian organizations like World Vision and the United Nations.”

Two years after the Israeli military killed hundreds of children in Gaza, Netanyahu said, “Hamas stole critical support for Palestinian children so that they could kill our children.”

It’s a rhetorical strategy that Israel has employed countless times to make it seem as though its control over Palestinians living under its rule is beneficent rather than thoroughly harmful.

Israel continues to exercise this control because of the complicity of third states and international organizations like the United Nations.

While Israel was criminalizing charity work in Gaza, the UN agreed to the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism scheme by which the UN monitors and gathers private information about Palestinian households to be passed along to Israel.

Through this scheme, Israel exercises a veto over what gets into Gaza and whom it benefits. In other words, Israel has a veto over which families get aid to rebuild homes that it destroyed.

A lengthy list of dual-use items determined by Israel to have both military and civilian uses has been used to deny and delay badly needed imports to Gaza, which has been under a comprehensive blockade since 2007.

The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, brokered by UNSCO, the UN secretary-general’s Middle East peace envoy, is aimed at bypassing the Hamas government in Gaza in favor of the “legitimate Palestinian government” in the West Bank and serves to entrench Israel’s siege on the territory.

Governments were “failing Gaza’s children” by not delivering on pledges made to rebuild the territory after Israel’s devastating 2014 assault, World Vision stated the following year.

The group added that Israel’s blockade made “daily life a struggle for children.” World Vision’s Jerusalem spokesperson said that any political agreement “that does not include the lifting of the Gaza blockade and ensuring unrestricted humanitarian access will be futile.”

Several years later, that situation remains unchanged. And despite Israeli military attacks and international complicity creating ever greater need for assistance in Gaza, there are fewer groups willing and able to meet those needs.

All the while, Israel persecutes Palestinian charity workers and human rights groups as Europe, the US, Canada and Australia do little to nothing to stop it.

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Mohammed El Halabi has withstood six years of lies, of arbitrary confinement, interrogation, torture, threats, and every form of humiliation his captors can visit upon him. Yet he's remained steadfast and truthful through it all. There will never be a formal trial for the simple reason that Israeli prosecutors know they have no case. So he sits in their dungeon and refuses to submit.

We must never forget the Palestinian prisoners. Support BDS for their sake and the sake of their families.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.