Dozens of Palestinian children and activists in the Gaza Strip rallied Sunday in solidarity with a local charity worker accused of funneling tens of millions of dollars in international aid donations to fund the Hamas terrorist group.
Palestinians who benefitted from World Vision aid in the Strip gathered outside the World Vision headquarters in Gaza City, demanding Muhammad Halabi, whom they dubbed “humanity’s savior,” be released from Israeli custody immediately.
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.
Israel on Thursday charged Halabi with diverting tens of millions of dollars of both materials and cash to Hamas, including its armed wing.
An official from the Shin Bet security agency said the funds amounted to over $7 million a year, with up to 60 percent of the NGO’s operating costs allegedly siphoned off.
Part of the money was used to fund Hamas attack tunnels into Israel, the agency said.
The Shin Bet said Halabi confessed to the charges during an interrogation over the weekend. On Sunday, Halabi’s attorney told Reuters his client denied all the allegations against him.
Israeli officials last week expressed anger over what the Shin Bet said was a “systematic and sophisticated mechanism,” built by 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.
On Monday, a World Vision spokeswoman charged “there is a huge gap” in the sums of money presented by the Shin Bet investigation into Halabi.
The organization, which last week said it was “shocked” by the allegations and it had “no reason to believe” they were true, has stopped its Gaza operations due to the investigation into Halabi.
World Vision’s Germany spokeswoman Silvia Holten on Monday questioned the Israeli claims, saying said the charity’s budget in Gaza over the last decade totaled just $22.5 million, and therefore Halabi’s confession to siphoning up to $50 million in donations was impossibly high.
“There is a huge gap in these numbers the Israeli government is telling and what we know,” Holten said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon speculated the organization’s budget does not include in-kind donations.
“They are trying to minimize their role and to show they are much smaller than they really are,” Nahshon said of World Vision. He did not provide proof of his claim, but said Halabi’s legal team will have access to the evidence. He added that Halabi confessed to his crimes.
Holten said the World Vision budget includes all in-kind donations, but she did not provide a detailed report of the organization’s spending in Gaza in recent years. She said World Vision performs stringent internal audits and commissions external audits from outside companies as well.
In the wake of the arrest, Germany and Australia suspended donations to World Vision in Gaza.
Halabi, who is in his late 30s and from Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip, was arrested June 15, as he was crossing from Israel into Gaza.
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, 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 such materials 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.
On Monday, UN coordinator Robert Piper said in a statement that Israel’s accusations against Halabi “raise serious concerns for humanitarian organizations working in Gaza.”
“Redirecting relief away from its intended beneficiaries would be a profound betrayal of the trust put in a senior manager by his employer and by the organization’s donors,” Piper said. “Everyone would pay a high price for such acts — beneficiaries and the wider aid effort alike. If proven by a due legal process, these actions deserve unreserved condemnation; Gaza’s demoralized and vulnerable citizens deserve so much better.”