US-based charity says sentencing 'deeply disappointing'

Israel sentences Gaza aid worker to 12 years for funding Hamas terror

Mohammed Halabi, local director of international Christian charity World Vision who was controversially held for 5 years before finally being sentenced, intends to appeal decision

Mohammed Halabi, right. (Courtesy of family)
Mohammed Halabi, right. (Courtesy of family)

An Israeli court on Tuesday sentenced a Gaza aid worker to 12 years in prison after he was found guilty of several terrorism charges in a high-profile case in which independent audits and investigations found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Mohammed Halabi, the Gaza director for the international Christian charity World Vision, was arrested in 2016 and accused of diverting tens of millions of dollars to the Islamic terror group Hamas that rules the territory.

The trial, and his prolonged detention, have further strained relations between Israel and humanitarian organizations that provide aid to Palestinians. The sentence is likely to continue to affect those ties.

Halabi’s lawyer reiterated his client’s claim of innocence following Tuesday’s sentencing.

“He says that he’s innocent, he did nothing and there is no evidence,” Maher Hanna said. “On the contrary, he proved in the court above any reasonable doubt that he made sure that no money will be (given) directly to Hamas.”

According to Hanna, if Halabi had admitted to wrongdoing, he would have been released.

Palestinian lawyer Maher Hanna, the attorney of World Vision’s Mohammed Halabi, speaks to the press at the Beersheba district court on August 30, 2022, after his client was sentenced to 12 years in prison. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“But he insisted that truth also has value. And for his personal values and for the international humanitarian work values, he insisted on the truth, and he cannot admit a thing that he did not do,” the lawyer said.

“It’s inconceivable,” Hanna, said of the length of the sentence. “They insist that injustice will persist throughout the whole process.”

Both Halabi and World Vision have denied the allegations and an independent audit in 2017 also found no evidence of support for Hamas.

Australia, which was the biggest single donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, came to similar conclusions in its own review.

World Vision, a US-based Christian charity with almost 40,000 employees globally, said the sentencing was “deeply disappointing” and stood in sharp contrast to the evidence and facts of the case.

“The arrest, six-year trial, unjust verdict, and this sentence are emblematic of actions that hinder humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank,” the group said. “It adds to the chilling impact on World Vision and other aid or development groups working to assist Palestinians.”

Its spokesperson Sharon Marshall stressed her objection to “any form of terrorism or activities that support terrorism,” saying they “don’t see any evidence of those things in this case.”

“We fully support Mohammed’s intent to appeal the verdict and the sentence in this case, and we call for a fair and transparent process at the supreme court,” she said in a statement.

“We remain committed to improving the lives of vulnerable children in the region and hope we’ll be able to advance our humanitarian work in the context of our longstanding cooperation with the relevant authorities in Palestine and Israel,” Marshall said.

Hanna said Halabi intended to appeal the verdict and the sentence to the country’s Supreme Court.

Amal Halabi (left) holds her grandson Fares while her grandson Amro, 7 (center) holds a picture of his father Mohammed Halabi, at their family home in Gaza city. The Arabic on the picture reads, ” the man of humanity.” August 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

The prosecution said it was also considering an appeal, believing the sentence to be too light.

“These are very severe deeds, the defendant funded terror with millions of shekels, helped strengthen the Hamas tunnel network,” Moran Guez of the southern district attorney’s office.

“We asked for 16-21 years prison. We’ll read the sentencing and consider our actions,” she told reporters.

In response to the ruling, Israel’s Foreign Ministry called the diversion of funds a “reprehensible act committed at the expense of the welfare of the Palestinian residents of Gaza,” and acknowledged both World Vision’s condemnation of terrorism and Halabi’s right to appeal.

It added that Israel is committed to working with aid groups such as World Vision “in a manner consistent with security considerations and applicable standards.”

Halabi had been convicted of membership in a terrorist group — Hamas — and financing terrorist activities, having “transmitted information to the enemy” as well as the possession of a weapon.

Much of the evidence against him was kept secret, with Israel citing “security concerns,” prompting his legal team to question the verdict’s legitimacy.

In its sentencing, the court said Halabi had joined the military wing of Hamas in 2004 and was “planted in World Vision” the following year.

The court said that besides 12 tons of steel and other materials provided to Hamas for its tunnels and positions, Halabi also gave the terror group “millions of dollars” of World Vision’s money “to fund terror.”

The office of the US-based Christian NGO, World Vision, in Gaza City, August 4, 2016. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

The 12-year sentence was also meant to deter Gazans working in international aid groups from aiding Hamas, according to the court.

“There are huge amounts of money that, if they reach terror organizations, will contribute to strengthening the terror regime in Gaza,” the sentencing said.

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, called the 12-year sentence a “profound miscarriage of justice,” with the lengthy trial and use of secret evidence constituting a “mockery of due process.”

“He should long ago have been released,” Shakir said in a statement.

Following Halabi’s arrest, the Australian government, a major donor to World Vision, announced it was freezing funding to projects in the Gaza Strip.

A subsequent Australian government probe found no evidence of embezzlement.

In a 2019 interview with The Times of Israel, Halabi’s attorney Hanna flatly rejected the accusations, noting that his client was a representative of the rival Fatah movement on the student council in his university at the same time Israel alleged that he joined the Hamas military wing.

Israeli authorities have repeatedly said they have proof that Hamas had infiltrated the aid group and was diverting funds from needy Gazans. Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpeted the charges in an online video shortly after Halabi’s arrest.

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)

In February, the US Embassy in Jerusalem told Halabi’s father that it is “closely monitoring” the case. Halabi’s father Khalil had reached out to the Biden administration, asking for Washington to intervene on his son’s behalf.

Hanna has accused the court system of refusing to provide qualified translators, saying it led to his client being unable to properly respond to questioning. The lawyer also said Israel refused to grant an entry permit to one of Halabi’s colleagues who Hanna wanted to call to the witness stand to testify on his client’s behalf at the Beersheba District Court.

Israel cited security concerns in rejecting the request. The same justification has been used to limit Hanna’s access to court minutes. Hanna has also been barred from entering Gaza where the alleged crimes took place.

Critics say Israel often relies on questionable informants and allege that Israel smears groups that provide aid or other support to Palestinians. Israel says it supports the work of aid organizations but must prevent donor funds from falling into the hands of armed groups like Hamas that do not recognize it and attack its citizens.

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