The international charity World Vision said Monday Israel has accused its Gaza Strip director of funneling what appears to be an impossible sum of money to Hamas.
The Shin Bet security agency said last week Muhammad el-Halabi had confessed to siphoning about $7.2 million a year to Hamas over five years. The Shin Bet said that was roughly 60 percent of World Vision’s total Gaza budget.
But World Vision Germany spokeswoman Silvia Holten said the charity’s budget in Gaza over the last decade totaled $22.5 million.
Holten said “there is a huge gap in these numbers the Israeli government is telling and what we know.” She said World Vision has stopped its Gaza operations amid investigations.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon speculated that World Vision’s budget does not include in-kind donations.
“They are trying to belittle 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 el-Halabi’s legal team will have access to the evidence. He added that el-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.
UN coordinator Robert Piper said in a statement Monday that Israel’s accusations against el-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.”
On Sunday, an attorney representing el-Halabi told Reuters his client was denying all the allegations against him. “Muhammad denies all these accusations. He denied it all,” said lawyer Mohammad Mahmoud. El-Halabi’s father also denied he is a member of Hamas, while a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, Hazem Qasem, called the allegations “lies.” The Shin Bet has said el-Halabi confessed to the charges during an interrogation.
Germany and Australia have suspended donations to World Vision in Gaza. Canberra said it was pulling its support for World Vision late Thursday, hours after Israeli officials indicted Halabi.
Israeli officials fumed last week over what the Shin Bet security service said was a “systematic and sophisticated mechanism” built by 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.
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 last week that it was “shocked” by the allegations and said it has “no reason to believe” they were true, but would “carefully review any evidence presented to us” and “take appropriate action based on that evidence.”
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said last week 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.
Hamas spokesman 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.
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 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.