Lawyer: How could he divert more money than the charity had?

Charged with helping Hamas, Gazan aid worker says he’s being denied a fair trial

In process that has dragged on for 3 years, attorney for World Vision staffer Mohammed Halabi contends Israel has repeatedly compromised his client’s right to prove his innocence

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Muhammad el-Halabi, a manager of the World Vision charity's operations in the Gaza Strip, was indicted on August 4, 2016, for diverting the charity's funds to the terrorist organization. (Screen capture: World Vision)
Muhammad el-Halabi, a manager of the World Vision charity's operations in the Gaza Strip, was indicted on August 4, 2016, for diverting the charity's funds to the terrorist organization. (Screen capture: World Vision)

Maher Hanna has struggled to find a way to bring a Palestinian man from the Gaza Strip to a court in Israel to testify in the trial of his client Mohammed Halabi.

Hanna says Nabil Atar could provide crucial information to the court, refuting allegations against Halabi, a senior employee of the global Christian aid organization World Vision accused by Israel of serving and aiding the Hamas terror group. But the Jewish state, he says, has refused to give Atar a permit to enter its territory.

During a recent interview in his small East Jerusalem office, Hanna contended that Israel’s ban on Atar’s entry, as a crucial witness in Halabi’s defense, is only one of a number of moves that have compromised the fairness of his 43-year-old client’s trial, which has been dragging on for over three years.

Israel arrested Halabi, who hails from the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, in June 2016 and later accused him of joining Hamas’s ranks and siphoning off for the terror group significant sums of money, as well as iron and other materials, from World Vision humanitarian projects.

Halabi, who has been in Israeli prisons since his arrest, denies the charges and has refused to agree to a plea deal.

Palestinian children hold posters of Mohammed Halabi, the Gaza director of World Vision, a major US-based Christian NGO, during a protest to support him at Rafah town in the southern Gaza Strip on August 29, 2016. (AFP/ SAID KHATIB)

He is alleged to have used two companies — one of them Atar’s — to facilitate the transfer of funds to Hamas.

According to the indictment, Halabi arranged for World Vision to overpay Atar’s agriculture business for its services, which would then return the extra money to him to give to the terror group.

Hanna said that Atar’s testimony is crucial because he can specifically explain that he and Halabi did not participate in a scheme to transfer funds to Hamas.

“He could totally undermine the accusations they made against Mohammed,” Hanna said. “He has begged Israel to allow him to go to the court and testify, but they have not permitted him to do so.”

An Israeli security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Atar submitted a request for a permit to enter Israel, but clarified that it was denied for security reasons.

The Shin Bet security service declined to respond to a request for comment on Atar and several other matters relating to the case.

Hanna said he now intends to ask Natan Zlotchover, the Beersheba District Court judge who is presiding over Halabi’s trial, to permit Atar to testify by video-conference.

Former deputy state prosecutor Yehoshua Resnick, however, said that Zlotchover almost certainly will not allow Atar to do so, because it would require cooperation between Israeli and Hamas-run courts.

Breaking down the allegations against Halabi

The indictment against Halabi accuses him of joining the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, in either 2004 or 2005, and being directed to seek employment at World Vision in order to advance the terrorists’ interests.

At World Vision, it alleges, Halabi funneled millions of dollars from the aid organization to Hamas and transferred hundreds of tons of iron, digging materials and plastic pipes to the terror group to construct cross-border attack tunnels and military posts. The Foreign Ministry and the Shin Bet have claimed that Halabi annually channeled approximately $7 million to Hamas.

Halabi, an engineer by training, is married with five children and his family is well-known in Gaza. He was named by the United Nations in 2014 a “humanitarian hero.”

Hanna said that the allegations regarding the diversion of funds simply do not add up.

Masked gunmen from the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas terror group, march with their weapons during a large-scale drill across the Gaza Strip, March 25, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

“They are saying he gave more money to Hamas annually than the entire World Vision budget for Gaza,” the lawyer said. “One time they said he gave Hamas $7 million yearly and other times they said he gave different amounts. It just doesn’t make sense because they are always referring to sums greater than the annual World Vision budget for Gaza, which was approximately $2 million.”

The Justice Ministry declined to discuss the charges against Halabi, noting that elements of the case are classified.

Hanna said the charges regarding the transfer of iron to Hamas also do not hold water.

“We know that Israel keeps a very close eye on everything that enters and exits Gaza, especially so with dual-use materials like iron,” he said, referring to goods that Israel fears Hamas or other terror groups in the coastal territory could employ to attack the Jewish state. “If the claim is true, that means that Israel lost track of huge amounts of iron. Is it really possible, with all of Israel’s close monitoring, that this enormous quantity of iron somehow found its way to Hamas for years without anyone noticing?”

Meanwhile, World Vision, which halted its operations in Gaza after Israel indicted Halabi and ended the contracts of 120 Palestinians who worked for it there, has said an audit it conducted did not find evidence that supports the charges against him.

“We engaged a major global law firm, with the help of a leading global advisory firm, to conduct an independent forensic investigation into the charges,” a World Vision spokeswoman said in an email. “It found no diversion of funds by Mohammad, and no material evidence that he was a member of or working for Hamas. In fact, there is substantial evidence to the contrary, showing how Mohammad worked to ensure World Vision avoided improper interactions with Hamas.”

Asked what specific evidence the audit found that demonstrated Halabi tried to make sure World Vision did not engage inappropriately with Hamas, the spokeswoman did not respond.

A Palestinian walks next to a poster of Mohammed al-Halabi, the Gaza director of Christian humanitarian charity World Vision, in Gaza City on January 12, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

Hanna said that Halabi was a Fatah representative on the student council at the Islamic University in the early 2000s, suggesting that he would be disinclined to work with Fatah’s main rival Hamas.

The Australian and German governments and US Agency for International Development also said audits they carried out into the use of funds they gave to World Vision’s programs in Gaza did not show irregularities.

Trial concerns

Hanna said that his ability to represent Halabi has been complicated and undercut by his limited access to a number of court protocols.

When he wants to review protocols of hearings in which the state prosecutor’s witnesses provided testimony, he said, he must first ask for permission from Israeli security officials.

“Every time I want to see those protocols, I need to contact the Shin Bet [Israel’s domestic security service] and then a day or two later, agents come to my office and watch me while I read them,” he said. “The fact that I need to go through this process is very frustrating. It complicates my work and basically prevents me from operating on my own schedule.”

The Justice Ministry said that Israel has restricted access to protocols of the prosecution’s witness testimonies on the basis of “considerations related to the security of the state.”

It also said that the limitations maintain “a balance between security needs and the defendant’s rights.”

Resnick, the former deputy state prosecutor, said that he understands why a lawyer would be frustrated in dealing with such a process, but emphasized that there is no alternative.

“One definitely suffers from this system, but at the end of the day the security services decide which materials require these restrictions,” said Resnick, who has dealt with similar issues in security-related cases. “You either accept them or you don’t take on the case.”

Maher Hanna, Mohammed Halabi’s lawyer, in his office in Jerusalem. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Hanna also said that his capacity to defend Halabi has been undermined by Israel preventing him from entering Gaza.

“Not going to Gaza seriously affects my work. We are talking about something Israel is alleging took place in Gaza. It is important that I go to World Vision’s offices and other places there, meet people, especially witnesses, and investigate,” he said. “I need to go to do an essential part of my job on this case.”

Hanna has appealed to the High Court of Justice for permission to enter Gaza, with a date for a hearing set for December.

In a response to Hanna’s petition, the state prosecutor said that security officials strongly oppose allowing him to enter Gaza because of “the sensitive security information” to which he has been exposed in Halabi’s trial. (The state did not elaborate.)

The state also said that Israel would be willing to allow Hanna to hold meetings with Palestinians from Gaza at the Erez crossing, the sole pedestrian passageway between Israel and the coastal enclave.

Hanna added that the Beersheba court has not provided a qualified translator. “The translation from Arabic to Hebrew and vice versa is very bad. The judge will ask Mohammed a long question in Hebrew, and then he will receive a poor and partial translation. When he responds the judge will say you didn’t answer me. But he responded to what the translator asked him, which isn’t exactly what the judge said,” Hanna said.

“Mohammed deserves to be able to understand the hearing and be understood. It is concerning because much of what is actually said in court is not reflected in the protocols,” he said.

Waiting for the High Court justices to arrive, December 4 (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Waiting for High Court justices to arrive in the courtroom. (Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

The Courts Administration spokesman declined to respond to a request for comment.

Resnick said he has come across cases of poor translators, and that the onus on is the lawyer to demand a better one.

“While a lawyer can suggest a translator, the court is responsible for actually providing one. If the translator is not suitable, then it is the lawyer who is required to inform the court, which should then search for a new person with the necessary security clearance,” he said.

Hanna said he has made several such requests, to no avail.

Approaching a verdict

Hanna said that, throughout the trial, he has expressed his concerns about the case to Zlotchover.

“The judge’s response always is that the specific concern I am raising does not have a substantial impact on the trial,” he said. “I don’t agree with him. But if I did for argument’s sake, I don’t think we could say that all of my concerns taken together — preventing a witness from Gaza coming to testify, limiting access to protocols, barring my entry to Gaza and so forth — have not had a substantial impact on the trial. All of these issues taken together clearly show Mohammed is not receiving a fair trial.”

Nonetheless, despite all his concerns and complaints, Hanna indicated he still has faith that the court will provide justice by acquitting his client.

“I’m convinced,” he said, noting that he expects the trial will come to a close in the next several months. “The evidence shows he is not guilty, and I believe the court will find him not guilty.”

AFP contributed to this article.

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