Gaza aid worker gets 12 years in prison for Israeli terrorism

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BEERSHEBA, Israel – An Israeli court on Tuesday sentenced the Gaza director of a major international charity to 12 years in prison after the court previously found him guilty of terrorism charges in a high-profile case in which investigations Independents found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Mohammed el-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 militant group Hamas which rules the territory. The trial and his prolonged detention have further strained relations between Israel and the humanitarian organizations that provide aid to the Palestinians. The phrase is likely to continue to affect those links.

The trial sheds light on how the Israeli justice system handles sensitive security cases, with the defense team having only limited access to evidence, which has also not been made public. Critics say the courts too often side with evidence provided by Israel’s security services.

“It’s inconceivable,” el-Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, said of the length of the sentence. “They insist that the injustice will persist throughout the process.”

El-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 largest donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, came to similar conclusions in its own review.

In a statement, World Vision said the conviction contrasted sharply with the evidence and facts of the case.

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

In June, the District Court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba found el-Halabi guilty of multiple counts, including membership in a terrorist organization, supplying information to a terrorist group, participating in militant exercises and carrying a weapon.

He said he diverts “millions” of dollars every year, as well as equipment, from World Vision and its donors to Hamas. He said Hamas used the funds for militant activities, as well as counseling for children, food aid and Quran memorization contests for its supporters. Pipes and nylon diverted to Hamas were used for military purposes, he added.

The court appeared to rely heavily on a confession by el-Halabi that has not been made public. Hanna, his lawyer, said the confession was given under duress to an informant and should not have been admitted as evidence. He also said the defense team was granted “very limited access” to evidence.

“The court spared no effort in this case,” said prosecutor Moran Gez, who added that the prosecution had requested a sentence of 16 to 21 years.

Hanna said el-Halabi intended to appeal the verdict and sentence to the country’s Supreme Court. Hanna said el-Halabi had refused on principle several plea bargain offers that would have allowed him to go free.

Israeli authorities have repeatedly said they have evidence that Hamas infiltrated the aid group and diverted funds from needy Gaza residents. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpeted the charges in an online video shortly after el-Halabi’s arrest.

Critics say Israel often relies on dodgy informants. They allege Israel is defiling groups that provide aid or other support to Palestinians in order to shore up its nearly 55-year military occupation of land the Palestinians want for a future state.

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.

Last year, Israel banned six Palestinian civil society groups for alleged ties to terrorism and earlier this month closed the West Bank offices of some of them. Israel has provided little evidence to support its charges. Nine European countries have dismissed Israel’s accusations against the groups, citing a lack of evidence.

After el-Halabi’s arrest, World Vision suspended its activities in Gaza, where more than 2 million Palestinians live under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed when Hamas took power nearly 15 years ago. Israel says the restrictions are necessary to contain Hamas, while critics see them as a form of collective punishment.

World Vision has worked with several Western donor countries to build an independent audit of its activities in Gaza. A team of a dozen attorneys, including several former US assistant attorneys, reviewed nearly 300,000 emails and conducted more than 180 interviews. Forensic auditors have gone through almost all of World Vision’s financial transactions from 2010 to 2016.

In July 2017, they submitted a more than 400-page report of their findings to World Vision, which shared it with donor governments. World Vision said it offered the report to Israel, but Israeli authorities refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

According to a lead investigator, the report found no evidence that el-Halabi was affiliated with Hamas or misappropriated funds. Instead, he found that el-Halabi applied internal controls and ordered employees to avoid anyone suspected of having ties to Hamas, the investigator said.

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