The case of Mohammad El Halabi and the rabbit hole of Israeli “justice”

A boy holds a mobile phone with a picture of a man holding a baby

Faris, Mohammed el-Halabi’s youngest son, holds up a phone with a photo of the last time the two were pictured together, when Faris was just a baby.

Mohammed Al-Hajjar

It’s been three years and there have been 119 court appearances. He has been separated from his family and lost his freedom.

Yet even though an Australian government inquiry has found allegations against him baseless, and his charges appear ever more outlandish as more is learned about the case, Mohammad El Halabi languishes in an Israeli prison, charged but not convicted, a Kafkaesque nightmare of the kind in which Israel – with its administrative detentions and separate laws for separate peoples – has become expert.

Back in Gaza, his father is fighting daily for his release, while Mohammad’s five children have to make do with rare prison visits. A frustrated family clings to any sign of hope for his release.

And the longer he stays in jail, the more convinced his supporters are that the case has nothing to do with Mohammad himself and everything to do with squeezing Gaza and undermining international humanitarian efforts there.

Mohammad’s father, Khalil El Halabi, 64, told The Electronic Intifada that he thinks the Israeli government wants to pressure international organizations not to support humanitarian projects in Gaza.

“Israel is doing everything to make Mohammad confess, because it wants to reduce humanitarian aid to Gaza by showing donors their money is being diverted.”

He believes that his son is being abused physically and psychologically in order to make him “confess.”

“This is an injustice. All my son did on his travels was to tell the world about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and about World Vision’s work there, with the children, fishers and those needing medical care.”

Outlandish charges

Mohammad was arrested on 15 June 2016 at the Erez checkpoint. He had been having meetings in Jerusalem at the offices of World Vision, a UK-headquartered global Christian charity for which he had worked some 10 years and whose Gaza program he had led since 2014.

Israel accused Mohammad of channeling World Vision money to Hamas, the movement that won the 2006 parliamentary elections and faced down a Fatah insurrection in Gaza the year after to leave it in charge of the occupied Gaza Strip.

The charges were dramatic. According to the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, Mohammad had diverted more than $7 million a year to Hamas.

It led the Australian and German governments – two of the biggest donors to the West Bank-Gaza program – to suspend their funding of the charity. Australia’s foreign ministry called the charges “deeply disturbing.” World Vision was forced to suspend its humanitarian program in Gaza.

But the charges were also, it would appear, simply made up.

World Vision undertook a “forensic audit” of its spending in Gaza, and came up with nothing. In a February 2017 statement, the charity said its review had “not generated any concerns about diversion of World Vision resources.”

“None of the allegations against Mohammad El Halabi have been tested in an open court, and we support the ongoing presumption of his innocence,” the charity said.

The Australian government undertook its own investigation and concurred. In April 2017, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) found no evidence to back up the Israeli charges.

“DFAT has reviewed the management of its funding to World Vision in the Palestinian territories. The review uncovered nothing to suggest any diversion of government funds.”

Moreover, the figure cited seemed outlandish from the start. If Mohammad had redirected $7 million a year as alleged, he would have diverted more than twice the budget World Vision allocated to Gaza over 10 years, and gotten away with it for years without anyone noticing.

Palestine’s Galileo

The absurdity and length of the case has prompted some observers to compare Mohammad to Galileo Galilei, whose observations about the Earth’s place in the solar system put him on the wrong side of the Church’s geocentric tradition, resulting in a 17-year stand-off that eventually culminated in Galileo’s trial and conviction on heresy charges.

Galileo was eventually confined to house arrest at home until his death. Mohammad – whose family is convinced he is being subjected to physical and psychological abuse and pressure to “confess” – is held far from a home where his youngest son, Faris, 4, can only remember his father in prison.

Khalil, Mohammad’s father, is a veteran administrator with UNRWA’s education program, catering to refugee children in Gaza.

There, he told The Electronic Intifada, he had supervised the inclusion of human rights subjects and insisted on the addition of holocaust studies at schools administered by the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

A man sits on a couch next to a framed poster with writing on it

Khalil el-Halabi is fighting relentlessly to secure his son’s release. 

Mohammed Al-Hajjar

“We raise our children to respect humanity regardless of race or religion. That respect is not granted to my son, who is in jail where he is being physically and psychologically tortured for something he hasn’t done. Is this the peace that Israel talks about?”

Khalil is convinced that Israel is using his son to target humanitarian programs in Gaza and is busy advocating for his son’s release. He has approached the Palestinian Authority for support, which in 2018 duly condemned the arrest as being part of an Israeli campaign to dissuade international organizations from working in occupied territory.

Khalil has appealed to human rights organizations, European ambassadors and the UN. He has met with the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov to press his son’s case.

He even sent a letter directly to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in July of last year, asking him to intervene.

So far, all has been in vain.

Missing their father

At his home in Gaza, Mohammad’s children have hung his picture next to the dining table in the family’s apartment in Gaza City.

The oldest child is Khalil, 15. They then range in age from Asem, 13, through Omar, 11, and Rital, 7, to young Faris.

The children have visited their father in jail. For Faris, this is the only relationship he has had with his father that he can consciously remember.

Khalil remembers the first time he saw his father in prison, and how scared he was.

“I thought I would see my dad and he would hug me. But I was terrified inside the prison with all the soldiers and weapons,” the teenager told The Electronic Intifada. “I don’t think I told him how much I missed him.”

Khalil is still scared of going back as is his grandmother, Amal. Mohammad’s mother still remembers her shock when she saw her son after 52 days in jail. She is convinced she saw the traces of physical abuse on his face.

He had, she said, told her then that he had been subjected to all kinds of torture from beatings to electric shocks.

Mohammad’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, has also alleged in Israeli media that his client had been tortured.

Now, Amal said, she has learned that her son has lost 40 percent of his hearing in his left ear.

“I can’t tell you how difficult it is sitting separated from my son by a glass panel as he tells me how he has been tortured.”

Khalil, the oldest son, often does not know what to tell his friends about his father, whose case is well-known in Gaza. People around the family are very supportive, even venerating Mohammad the way Palestinians venerate political prisoners.

But Khalil would rather have his dad back.

“I don’t want people to say I am the son of a heroic prisoner. I want my father home.”

Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.