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US ‘monitoring’ Israeli jailing of Gaza rights worker for 5 years with no verdict

Israel accuses Muhammad Halabi of redirecting millions to Hamas but has provided minimal concrete evidence in drawn-out case; US embassy to father: We’ve raised concern with Israel

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

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 Hamas 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 Hamas terrorist organization. (Screen capture: World Vision)

The Biden administration is “closely monitoring” Israel’s ongoing detention and trial of a Gazan humanitarian worker accused in 2016 of redirecting millions of dollars in aid to Hamas, according to an email the US Embassy in Jerusalem sent the suspect’s father last week.

The allegations against Muhammad Halabi, who managed the Gaza office of the World Vision Christian aid group, have been subject to significant speculation. Israeli authorities claim he funneled approximately $7 million annually to Gaza’s Hamas rulers — a number colleagues say is more than three times the annual budget for the World Vision Gaza office. Prosecutors have also provided minimal concrete evidence throughout the proceedings that have been plagued with delays since Halabi’s widely publicized indictment in August 2016. The Justice Ministry has declined to provide a justification for the lengthy detention, saying the case is classified.

Halabi has been seeking to at least be released pending a verdict in the case given the abnormally long time he has been locked up. The Supreme Court was scheduled to convene a hearing on the matter this week but it was pushed off until February 15.

In the meantime, Halabi’s father Khalil reached out to the Biden administration, asking for Washington to intervene on his son’s behalf.

Last week, a representative from the Palestinian Affairs Unit of the US Embassy in Jerusalem wrote back to Khalil saying the administration is aware of his son’s case and even highlighted it the State Department’s annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices.

“Officers at the Embassy have closely monitored his case and have previously been in touch with World Vision and Mohammad’s attorney to learn more about his detention and court case,” the embassy diplomat said in the email viewed by The Times of Israel. “We’ve also been in touch with the Israeli authorities to express our concerns over the impact his case has had on the shrinking humanitarian space in Gaza.”

“We will continue to monitor the case closely and raise our concerns with the appropriate officials,” the US official said.

A screenshot of a now-archived page on worldhumanitarianday.org, which refers to Muhammad Halabi as a ‘humanitarian.’ Halabi is accused by Israel of siphoning off millions of dollars in donations to Hamas. (screen capture)

Khalil Halabi told ToI he contacted the US embassy because World Vision has a major hub in the US and he believed that US President Joe Biden’s stated commitment to human rights would compel him to act on his son’s behalf. “I am sure that the Americans will not be silent as a [humanitarian worker] is unjustly charged based on fabricated charges,” he said.

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

But in a 2019 interview with The Times of Israel, Halabi’s attorney Maher 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.

In addition to the exorbitant amount in funds that Halabi is accused of funneling, Hanna also cast doubt that Israel would miss the smuggling of such a large amount of a duel-use material like iron, which it closely monitors at the Gaza border crossings it controls.

Audits performed by World Vision along with Germany, Australia and the US Agency for International Development, which separately sponsors the aid group’s work, all concluded that there were no irregularities in the Gaza office’s finances.

Hanna has accused the court system of refusing to provide qualified translators, which has 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.

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