Israeli prosecutors charged a World Vision aid worker on Thursday with diverting tens of millions of dollars meant for aid projects to Hamas. Mohammad El Halabi, who was arrested in June, is accused of infiltrating the aid group and running sham programs on behalf of Hamas in Gaza. World Vision issued a statement that said it is “shocked” by the charges and that there is no reason to believe they are true.
“[The humanitarian groups] do good work in a large number of areas of assistance, and we have no quibble about their intentions. Hamas knew how to exploit the weak oversight of [World Vision] regarding what happens with its resources,” a senior official of Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, said at a press briefing. “We weren’t investigating the organization, but rather Hamas activists. We have no suspicions against the organization.”
World Vision issued a statement shortly after the charges were filed backing Halabi, who served as the Gaza director for World Vision, stating that it did not detect any evidence of the mismanagement of its funds in Gaza. The group said it conducts regular internal and independent audits of its programs in Gaza and had constraints in place to prevent the kind of fraud that Shin Bet said Halabi committed.
“Based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true. We will carefully review any evidence presented to us and will take appropriate actions based on that evidence. We continue to call for a fair, legal process for Mohammad,” the statement said.
Halabi has been in jail for 50 days before today’s charges. In June, World Vision issued a statement decrying his detention. He was reportedly cut off from legal counsel and from his family. World Vision said it stood by its director, calling him “a widely respected and well regarded humanitarian.” It is a sentiment shared by one aid worker who was posted alongside Halabi, who told Humanosphere, “He’s one of the best I’ve worked with.”
Shin Bet maintains that Halabi was recruited by Hamas more than a decade ago and sent to infiltrate an aid group in order to help fund its military. Halabi moved up the ranks in World Vision in Gaza, eventually becoming the director in 2010. Since then, Shin Bet said he set up fake programs and fake beneficiaries in order to divert money to Hamas. Shin Bet said that Halabi diverted $7.2 million a year to Hamas, totaling as much as $50 million. That is roughly 60 percent of the budget for World Vision Gaza.
Among the charges:
- A program to build greenhouses that were then used to conceal evacuation sites for underground tunnels
- A program designed to help fishermen actually funded the Hamas naval force to buy diving suits and boats
- Money donated by the U.S., U.K. and others to World Vision in Gaza funded these programs and allowed Hamas to buy weapons
Hamas denied any connection to Halabi. Both the U.S. and Israel have blacklisted Hamas as a terrorist organization. U.S.-funded aid programs are prohibited from working with Hamas, but aid workers with experience in the region told Humanosphere that it is virtually impossible to avoid Hamas in Gaza.
“Israel can link anyone living in the Gaza Strip to Hamas. Mohammed does not belong to the organization nor is he affiliated with Hamas,” Halabi’s lawyer Mohammed Mahmoud told the Israeli news organization Haaretz.
Shin Bet said Halabi confessed to being recruited by Hamas and said his father, a former senior official and current contractor with the United Nations Relief and World Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), was also a member of Hamas.
“Senior Israel military sources raised this case with us recently and told us that no UNRWA staff members were involved. In addition, no evidence has been given to us by the Israeli authorities about an UNRWA staff member being involved in this case,” said Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for UNRWA, in a statement to Humanosphere. “It remains UNRWA’s policy always to investigate credible allegations of neutrality violations and where violations of staff rules and regulations are established, disciplinary action will be taken as appropriate.“
Halabi was born into a UNRWA refugee camp in Gaza, according to World Vision. He worked as an engineer until 2002 before becoming an aid worker. He cited the crisis caused by the Second Intifada uprising as his motivation, as well as his desire to help people in need, especially children.
“Having lived through consequent conflicts and wars, seeing injured and killed children, and knowing my own children have been traumatized by the violence, I decided to fully dedicate my life to helping people and children to restore their lives,” he said.
Investigations by Israeli officials and World Vision are under way.