Australia said it was suspending funding for major charity World Vision late Thursday, hours after Israeli officials accused the group’s manager in Gaza of funneling tens of millions of dollars in aid money to terror group Hamas.
The decision by Canberra came as Israeli officials fumed over what the Shin Bet security service said was a “systematic and sophisticated mechanism” built by senior employee Mohammed el-Halabi to divert up to $50 million over the years to the group, which rules Gaza, creating fictitious humanitarian projects and doctoring inflated receipts in order to get the funds to Hamas.
“Any diversion of the generous support of the Australian and international community for military or terrorist purposes by Hamas is to be deplored,” the Australian government said in a statement.
Australia has donated some $3.8 million to World Vision in Gaza over the past three years, according to Australian network ABC. Last year, Halabi took ambassador Dave Sharma on a tour through strawberry fields supported by the Australian aid.
The station reported that the foreign ministry in Canberra was treating the probe with the highest priority.
Australia suspending funding to World Vision operations in Palestinian Territories until investigation is complete. https://t.co/hlYhahke2n
— Paul Griffiths ???????? (@AusAmbIsrael) August 4, 2016
In Gaza, seeing how Australian aid is improving agricultural production, supporting livelihoods. Tasty strawberries! pic.twitter.com/fYQsiTAEkV
— Paul Griffiths ???????? (@AusAmbIsrael) March 9, 2016
World Vision, an international Christian aid group with headquarters in Washington State and the United Kingdom, works in nearly 100 countries. With a budget of approximately $2.6 billion and nearly 50,000 employees, it is one of the largest US-based relief organizations and has operated in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza since the 1970s.
The organization said in a statement on its website that it was “shocked” by the allegations and said it has “no reason to believe” they are true but will “carefully review any evidence presented to us” and “take appropriate action based on that evidence.”
The Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, an Israel-based legal NGO that initiates court cases on behalf of terror victims, said in a statement it had warned Canberra in 2012 and again in 2015 that World Vision was siphoning money to terror activities, but was rebuffed.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said that Kent Hill, a senior official with World Vision, was holding meetings in Israel over the accusations. The Israeli official spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings were private.
Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, which acts as a liaison between the Defense Ministry and Palestinians, met with World Vision officials and called on them to condemn Halabi’s actions, according to Army Radio.
He also said the group was responsible for the damage they had caused.
In an Arabic video address, Mordechai said Hamas was to blame for Gaza’s poor humanitarian situation.
“Hamas stole this money and passed it to its military wing to build bases, provide salary bonuses and dig the tunnels of death that have brought destruction upon you and the Gaza Strip,” Mordechai said. “Hamas is burying you and your hope of living a normal life.”
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qasem called the allegations “lies that may be part of the justification of the blockade imposed by the occupation on Gaza.”
Halabi, who is in his late 30s and from Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip, was arrested in June as he was crossing from Israel into Gaza.
In a Facebook video posted from the Erez crossing where Halabi was arrested, IDF Spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Halabi had confessed to the charges against him, including supplying food to Hamas fighters inside tunnels during the 2014 conflict with Israel.
The Shin Bet said Halabi underwent Hamas military and organizational training in the early 2000s and was “planted” by the group at World Vision in 2005, where he climbed the ranks to become director of the Gaza branch.
“He began to conduct security operations for Hamas’s military wing which was essentially exploiting the organization’s funds for Hamas’s fortification,” the Shin Bet said.
To divert the funds, some 60 percent of World Vision’s budget in Gaza, the Shin Bet said Halabi initiated fictitious projects meant to help farmers, the disabled and fishermen.
He would falsely list Hamas operatives as workers on those projects and write up inflated receipts, according to the Shin Bet. Companies hired to carry out certain projects under fictitious tenders were “made aware” that 60 percent of the project’s funds were destined for Hamas, the Shin Bet statement said, adding that some of World Vision’s budget was used to pay the salaries of Hamas operatives.
The Shin Bet also said Halabi would transfer to Hamas materials such as steel, digging equipment and pipes that were meant for World Vision agricultural assistance. Thousands of packages with food and medical aid received monthly would allegedly be diverted to Hamas operatives and their families rather than reach Gazan civilians.
Beyond arms purchases and tunnel digging, the funds also helped build military bases, including one constructed in 2015 built entirely from British aid money, according to the Shin Bet.
The security agency also said that since his arrest, Halabi divulged intelligence about employees working for United Nations agencies and other aid groups who were also assisting Hamas, without elaborating.
Others also criticized World Vision after news of Halabi’s arrest was released.
“The misappropriation and abuse of international aid is the latest demonstration of Hamas’s contempt of its own people. Instead of building schools and hospitals, Hamas continues to build terror tunnels and rearms in preparation for another attack on Israel,” a statement from the UK’s Conservative Friends of Israel read.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan warned that the links between terrorist organizations and aid groups in the Gaza Strip were substantial, and urged donor states to ensure that their money does not end up in the hands of terrorists.
“I imagine that in the World Vision organization, which is very anti-Israeli, they turned a blind eye,” Erdan told Army Radio. “The connections that were uncovered today are part of a much wider and very serious phenomenon.”
“Israel will not permit this, and we will take action against these organizations and their activists,” he said. “We expect donor countries and international organizations to carefully check the destination of the money.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.