Over the course of several years, the Hamas terrorist organization siphoned off “tens of millions of dollars” from the US-based World Vision charity for its military wing, the Shin Bet security service said Thursday.
Those funds — allegedly 60 percent of the charity’s total budget — were used to purchase weapons, dig tunnels and construct military installations for Hamas, investigators said.
Muhammad Halabi, a Hamas member and manager of operations for World Vision in Gaza, was indicted on a number of security-related charges in a Beersheba court on Thursday for his role in the alleged scheme. He was arrested in a joint Shin Bet-IDF-Israel Police operation at the Erez Crossing on June 15 as he tried to return to the Strip, the Shin Bet said.
Halabi, a member of Hamas from a young age, was handpicked to infiltrate the international charity in 2005 in order to steal money for the terrorist organization, according to the investigation.
“This was a meaningful and important investigation that showed — above all — the cynical and crude way in which Hamas takes advantage of funds and resources from international humanitarian aid organizations,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.
In a statement released following the indictment, World Vision defended Halabi and denied the allegations against him.
“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,” the group wrote.
After rising through the ranks of World Vision, Halabi became the manager of World Vision’s activities in the Gaza Strip. “In that capacity he controlled the budget, equipment and humanitarian aid packages worth tens of millions of dollars,” the Shin Bet said.
There he was able to funnel approximately “60 percent of World Vision’s annual budget for the Gaza Strip to Hamas,” according to his testimony, which amounted to approximately $7.2 million every year.
This was mostly commonly done by Halabi offering fake tenders for work. “The ‘winning’ company was aware that 60% of the project’s funds were bound for Hamas,” the Shin Bet said.
Approximately 40 percent of World Vision’s funds for civilian projects — $1.5 million a year — was also given to Hamas battalions in cash, according to the Shin Bet, along with approximately $4 million a year that was designated for helping the needy.
According to investigators, some of those “fictitious” humanitarian projects included the construction of greenhouses, rejuvenation of agricultural fields, mental and physical health projects, an initiative to assist fishermen, a center for treating the mentally and physically handicapped, and the creation of agricultural organizations.
“These were all used as a pipeline to transfer money to Hamas,” the Shin Bet said.
In those fake programs, the terrorist organization was able to inflate the budgets, claim Hamas operatives as employees and launder money through World Vision, the security service added.
For instance, Halabi would list a parcel of land as costing $1,000 when it in fact cost $700 in order to pocket the extra funds and transfer them to the terrorist group, according to his testimony.
According to Halabi’s testimony, the funds that were transferred to Hamas were “earmarked for building up the military wing [of Hamas],” including digging tunnels, purchasing weaponry and building defensive outposts.
Some of the stolen funds were also used to pay the salaries of Hamas operatives. In some cases large sums of money were taken by senior members of the terrorist organization for their “personal needs,” the Shin Bet said.
Through such initiatives, Hamas was also able to purchase otherwise forbidden gear and take advantage of the “logistical assistance” given to the organization.
For instance, the greenhouse construction project allowed the group to scope out suitable digging sites for tunnels, while the nonexistent fishermen assistance program was used to purchase motorboats for smuggling and wetsuits that could be used by Hamas frogmen in attacks against Israel, the Shin Bet said.
In addition to funds and opportunities, Halabi also allegedly stole equipment that had been purchased by World Vision to assist farmers. Instead, the iron, digging tools, pipes and construction materials were used by Hamas for its own purposes.
Some 2,500 cartons of food and 3,300 cartons of cleaning supplies were also stolen from World Vision and given to Hamas fighters, according to the Shin Bet.
Money designated for children injured in conflicts with Israel was instead taken by families of Hamas members who falsely registered their children in the program, the security service said.
According to Halabi’s testimony, the humanitarian aid reserved by World Vision for residents of the Gaza Strip was given “almost entirely” to Hamas operatives and their families.
“This, it must be said, is against the official regulations of humanitarian aid organizations operating in the Gaza Strip,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.
Following the indictment, Israel’s Coordinator of the Government’s Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai released a statement in Arabic to the people of Gaza, telling them of Halabi’s actions.
“I’m speaking to you today about the Hamas terror organization, which is stealing your money to advance terror. Following a long investigation, we found that Hamas consistently uses funds that Western countries give to international organizations, like the World Vision organization in Gaza,” Mordechai said.
“Millions of dollars that were meant to build projects, support residents financially — even food packages for the needy — were given over to the military wing of Hamas for building bases, for salary bonuses and for digging death tunnels that will bring demolition and destruction upon you and the Gaza Strip,” he told residents of the coastal enclave.
While the general cast the blame on Hamas, Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, accused World Vision of being “negligent” in its indirect funding of terrorism.
“World vision int. financed ‘unwittingly’ Hamas terror tunnels. How negligent can you be?! Money for kids used for terror,” Nahshon tweeted after the case was revealed.
World vision int. financed "unwittingly " Hamas terror tunnels . How negligent can you be?! Money for kids used for terror
— Emmanuel Nahshon (@EmmanuelNahshon) August 4, 2016
Halabi supplied Israeli investigators with additional information about a large number of individuals in the Gaza Strip who take advantage of their work for aid organizations and the United Nations to assist Hamas, the Shin Bet said.
For example, Halabi’s father, Halil, served as head of the United Nation’s school system in the Gaza Strip for years. He too is a member of Hamas and, according to Halabi’s testimony, uses his position to help the terrorist organization.
World Vision is an Evangelical Christian charity created in 1950 that operates in nearly 100 countries worldwide. Today it is one of the largest relief organizations based in the United States, with a budget of approximately $2.6 billion and nearly 50,000 employees. It has operated in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza since the 1970s.
When Halabi was first arrested in June, before charges were brought against him, the charity defended him in a statement.
“[Halabi] is a widely respected and well regarded humanitarian, field manager and trusted colleague of over a decade. He has displayed compassionate leadership on behalf of the children and communities of Gaza through difficult and challenging times, and has always worked diligently and professionally in fulfilling his duties,” the organization said in June.