Mohammed El Halabi was subjected to 50 days of administrative detention and interrogation before being indicted by Israel on Aug. 4, 2016. He is charged with diverting funds to Hamas during his tenure as head of World Vision’s Gaza office. His detention and interrogation raise questions about fair procedures in the investigation, transparency and realities of risks for aid groups working in conflict zones, as well as the restrictive legal environment for nonprofit organizations in Israeli law.
Halabi has denied the allegations through his attorney, who was not allowed to meet with his client for the first 25 days of detention. World Vision said it has no reason to believe the charges are true, based on independent audits and oversight of its programs. Israeli authorities said they do not believe World Vision is complicit, but criticized its oversight. The next steps are uncertain. Israel is now sharing information on the case with World Vision and with other countries. The issue has led Australia to suspend World Vision’s Gaza funding, and the organization has suspended its Gaza operations pending investigation.
El Halabi has worked as World Vision’s manager of operations in Gaza since 2010. He joined the organization in 2005 and was featured as a humanitarian hero for the UN’s World Humanitarian Day in 2014.
World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization based in the U.S that operates programs in over 100 countries. While private donations are a significant source of its income, it also receives funds from governments and the UN. World Vision’s statement on the indictment stresses that it “subscribes to the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality and therefore rejects involvement in any political, military terrorist activities and maintains its independence as a humanitarian aid agency committed to serving the poor, especially children.” Detailed information on the organization is available in its 2014 Form 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service.
Arrest, Detention and Charges
Halabi was arrested June 15 as he was crossing a checkpoint to return to Gaza from Israel. He was detained under Israeli administrative rules that do not require formal indictment or charges and was not allowed to see an attorney until after 25 days of detention and interrogation. NBC News reports that the attorney who eventually was able to visit Halabi said he had been beaten while in custody.
After Halabi’s arrest, World Vision’s East Jerusalem office released a statement June 27 saying they were “not aware of his whereabouts and what if anything he’s being accused” and said it would continue to reach out to relevant authorities seeking his release or access to legal support. The statement called on the Israeli government to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and “proceed firmly and objectively on the presumption of innocence.” On June 3,0 UN Assistant Secretary-General Robert Piper tweeted “now 15 days since Mohammed El Halabi of World Vision in Gaza was detained by Israeli Gov @Erez no access yet 2 his lawyer or family.” Halabi’s detention was extended in early July and on July 12, Israeli authorities searched the East Jerusalem office.
The news of the charges were reported by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz after Israeli authorities lifted a gag order on the case. The Israeli domestic security agency Shin Bet conducted the investigation and charged Halabi with infiltrating World Vision in order to divert funds and resources to Hamas’s military wing. Shin Bet does not accuse World Vision itself, but said that other, unnamed World Vision employees sometimes acted with Halabi.
Shin Bet alleges that more than half of World Vision’s budget for Gaza was diverted to Hamas, amounting to about $7 million a year since 2006, according to the Washington Post. It alleges in one case an $800,000 donation from the British Disasters Emergency Committee, as reported by IRIN, intended to assist needy families was used to build a Hamas position in the town of the Beit and pay Hamas salaries and bonuses. More examples of projects involving alleged diversion include greenhouse construction, psychological and public health projects for Gaza residents, aid to fishermen, a treatment center for the physically and mentally disabled and farmers associations.
Shin Bet alleges that Halabi stated under interrogation that he became a Hamas member in his youth, joined its armed wing in 2004 and in 2005 was asked to infiltrate a humanitarian organization. Ha’aretz reports that Halabi’s interrogation yielded information about the methods used to divert funds, including a fictitious public bidding process and false listing of beneficiaries in order to qualify them for aid. Military use of the aid is alleged to include support for construction of cross-border tunnels into Israel and a military base. Packages of food meant for needy families allegedly went to Hamas fighters and says the “values of the goods and cash allegedly involved is unclear.”
Both El Halabi’s Attorney and World Vision Deny the Accusations
Ha’aretz quotes Halabi’s attorney, Mohammed Mahmoud, saying that his client denies any links to Hamas. He said “the fact that the investigation has lasted 55 days proves there is a problem with the evidence… We will study the file as evidence some more but I think this file started off very inflated and the loan has since been deflated.”
World Vision’s statement said, “based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true. We will carefully review any evidence presented to us and will take appropriate actions based on the evidence. We continue to call for a fair legal process.”
It noted that “World Vision has detailed procedures and control mechanisms in place to ensure that the funds entrusted to us are spent in accordance with the applicable legal requirements in ways that do not fuel conflict but rather contribute to peace.” It also states that “World Vision programs in Gaza have been subject to regular internal and independent audits, independent evaluations, and a broad range of internal controls ensuring that assets reach their intended beneficiaries and used in compliance with applicable laws and donor requirements.”
The head of World Vision in Australia, Tim Costello, told the New York Times that it was inappropriate for Israeli authorities to publicly accuse Halabi and World Vision without first giving them a chance to review the evidence. He said “we just really want a fair process, where Mohammed, once charged, gets to present his side because we want to know the truth about this.”
Ha’aretz reported that the “sum Halabi is accused of siphoning off to Hamas' military wing far surpasses the organization's actual budget for the past decade… But World Vision Germany spokeswoman Silvia Holten said in Germany on Monday that the charity's Gaza budget totaled $22.5 million in the last decade – well under the Shin Bet estimate of Halabi's alleged transfers to Hamas. According to Holten, there is a "huge gap" in the numbers.”
World Vision’s incoming president, Edgar Sandoval, is reported to have met with Shin Bet officials in Tel Aviv to learn more about the case. The Australian government did not wait for the results of independent investigation but instead suspended further funding for World Vision’s programs in the Palestinian territories until the investigation is complete.” Germany did the same. The Israeli authorities say they have passed on details of the case to a number of countries where money is being sent to Gaza but so far there have been no further sanctions against World Vision.
Issues and questions
- Investigative Procedures
The length of time Halabi was detained and interrogated without access to legal representation or his family and colleagues raises questions about the veracity of any confession made under these conditions. The use of torture in Israeli interrogations has been an issue for many years. The U.S. State Department’s 2015 report on human rights pointed out that Israeli investigators are exempt from criminal prosecution if they use torture or physical and psychological pain in interrogations in cases involving “imminent threats.” Reports from human rights organizations in 2016 detail physical abuse of detainees by Israeli interrogators. In a 2014 report by the Middle East monitor, the director of the Aurora Center for Prisoner Studies and Human Rights said “torture in Israeli prisons is systematic…"
The gag orders on charges for the 5- day period Halabi was detained and interrogated, as well as the current gag orders on investigation of other aid organizations, run the risk of creating a chilling effect on legitimate organizations. The Ha’aretz article quoted Shin Bet as saying “other information obtained while investigating Halabi raises suspicions that other humanitarian aid organizations, as well, including United Nations institutions, have exploited their jobs for Hamas. Details of these cases are still under gag order.”
Lack of clarity about what constitutes aid diversion may be part of the story in the Halabi case. Anti-terrorist financing laws do not necessarily respect the principles of neutrality and impartiality embedded in international humanitarian law. Aid groups must serve civilian populations on the basis of need alone and the political affiliations or sympathies of beneficiaries or their family members are irrelevant for this purpose. Security forces do not necessarily respect these principles.
- Risk Working in Conflict Zones
Providing aid in places where listed terrorist groups operate or control territory is enormously challenging. In Gaza, where Hamas controls the government, it can be particularly difficult. U.S.-funded groups are required to carry out extensive security vetting of staff and local partners and under USAID Mission Order 21 are prohibited from having any contact with Hamas, including local officials such as school superintendents. It is difficult to imagine how more than half the aid provided by World Vision could disappear unnoticed, given all the oversight and controls in place.
The news stories about the charges against Halabi and his lawyer’s response raise questions about how the same incident may be viewed very differently by aid groups and security investigators. Shin Bet alleged that trucks going through crossing points went to Hamas warehouses instead of World Vision storage facilities.” Ha’aretz quotes Halabi’s lawyer saying that his client “said explicitly under questioning that armed Hamas members came into commercial vehicle with a machine gun mounted on it under threat they took what they wanted.”
- The hostile climate for civil society
Recently, Israel has been criticized for passing a law, to take effect in January 2017, that requires nonprofits that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments to submit special reports to the State Registrar and identify themselves as foreign-funded organizations in publications, communications with public officials and in the media. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the law “troubling” and the U.S. State Dept. notes it may have a chilling effect on nonprofit activities. While it is generally believed to be aimed at human rights organizations, aid organizations may also be impacted. The charges against World Vision can be seen as a further effort to limit the scope of civil society operations.