Australia finds no evidence World Vision aid worker diverted funds to Hamas

Mohammed El Halabi, World Vision's Area Development Programme Manager in Gaza, meets with children displaced by the violence during the brief ceasefire. (Credit: Mohammad Awed, WV Volunteer/World Vision)

An initial inquiry by the Australian government has found no evidence that an aid worker in the Gaza Strip diverted money to support Hamas. A review by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does not clear Mohammad El Halabi of wrongdoing, and Australian government officials say they are waiting on the result of his trial.

“While the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade conducted a review of its aid management and found nothing to indicate Mr. El-Halabi’s alleged wrongdoing, World Vision International and World Vision Australia have also commissioned independent review which are ongoing, and the Israeli court case continues,” Dave Sharma, Australia’s ambassador to Israel, said in a tweeted statement.

Australian funding for World Vision’s work in Palestine remains suspended until the independent inquiries and trial are completed. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) contributed more than $3 million over the past three years to the charity’s work in Palestine. Auditors looked over DFAT’s contributions and found no evidence that funds were misused.

Halabi was charged in August 2016 by Israel with infiltrating World Vision on behalf of Hamas and diverting millions of dollars to the group. Hamas is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. and other Western countries, preventing aid groups from working directly with the organization, let alone providing them money. Halabi pleaded not guilty to the charges brought against him in February.

World Vision International defended Halabi from the moment of his arrest saying that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and it has checks in place to prevent staff from controlling large sums of money. CEO Kevin Jenkins said the charity had “not seen any credible evidence supporting the charges” against Halabi, in a February statement. The group’s inquiry into its Palestine program has yet to raise any concerns regarding spending.

“So far, our own ongoing forensic audit has not uncovered any money subverted and to hear DFAT say their investigation hasn’t either is consistent and is very good news,” advocacy head Tim Costello, told The Australian.

He echoed Jenkins’s call for Israeli authorities to share evidence with World Vision and the Australian government regarding the case. Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, accused Halabi of a decade-long effort to divert nearly $30 million dollars – more than the roughly $22.5 million World Vision Australia spent on its Palestine program over the same period of time. Halabi rejected a plea deal for three years in jail in January.

DFAT’s findings provide some vindication for Halabi and World Vision. With limited information and a slow trial process, important funds that support World Visions work in Palestine remain on hold.

“We remain deeply concerned with this situation, and are saddened by the impact on Gaza’s children and their families. Aid from the international community remains a lifeline for 1.1 million people in Gaza, and one in four children in Gaza are in need of psychosocial support,” said Jenkins.

In a separate case, a U.N. worker was jailed seven months for inadvertently aiding Hamas. Wahid Abdallah al Bursh pleaded guilty in early January and was released days later for time served and good behavior. Shin Bet accused Bursh of assisting in the construction of a makeshift jetty to help Hamas naval forces. Authorities proved that some rubble from trucks oversaw by Bursh was transported to Hamas-held locations, but could not demonstrate that he did it on purpose.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.