U.N. aid worker gets 7 months in jail for aiding Hamas in plea deal

A rubble removal project at Shujaiyah, Gaza, is funded by Sweden and implemented by UNDP. (Credit: UNDP)

A U.N. aid worker was sentenced this week to seven months in jail for helping the Islamist fundamentalist organization Hamas, according to news reports. Wahid Abdallah al Bursh pleaded guilty to unintentionally aiding the group while he worked for the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).

Bursh was arrested in July and charged in August with helping Hamas. Israeli authorities accused him of infiltrating the U.N. aid agency in order to direct resources for rebuilding homes damaged during the paramilitary group’s battles with Israel.

Bursh’s lawyers maintained that the accusations were false. His lawyer Lea Tsemel stressed to the Agence France-Presse that the plea deal was not an admission of intent. Under the terms of the deal, Tsemel expects Bursh to be released Jan. 12. Israeli authorities will count his time served and extend some leniency for good behavior.

The Israeli security agency Shin Bet said Bursh provided assistance in the building of a makeshift jetty to help Hamas naval forces, notified the group when tunnel entrances and arms were found by UNDP and convinced managers to prioritize the rehab of Hamas-owned houses, according to Reuters.

Tsemel told AFP that Israeli authorities said that Bursh could have done more to prevent some trucks from transporting rubble to Hamas-held locations.

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“This outcome confirms that there was no wrongdoing by UNDP,” said the organization in a statement, according to Reuters. “UNDP has zero tolerance for wrongdoing in its programs and is committed to the highest standards of transparency and accountability”

Bursh was the second high-profile arrest of an aid worker by Israeli authorities in 2016. World Vision’s Gaza director Mohammad El Halabi was arrested in June and charged with aiding Hamas. Shin Bet said he funneled millions of dollars from the aid group to fund the group.

World Vision immediately defended its staffer saying the total funding for programs overseen by Halabi was less than the amount he was accused of stealing. The group performs regular audits and has checks that do not allow single workers to handle more than a few thousand dollars at the time.

“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,” said World Vision, in response to the allegations.

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The trial for Halabi is ongoing, say Israeli authorities. World Vision and Amnesty International condemned the secret trial in late August.

“Secret trials are the most flagrant violation of the right to a public hearing. Holding these court proceedings behind closed doors would render any convictions obtained unsound,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International, in a statement. “The allegation of stealing money intended to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is extremely serious. This makes it all the more pressing to ensure that Mohammed al-Halabi’s rights are fully respected and that his trial be fair and transparent.”

Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other countries. Aid groups working in Palestine are unable to work with Hamas, but the group is hard to avoid given its reach in the territories.

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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.