BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) — An Israeli court on Tuesday sentenced the Gaza director of a major international charity to 12 years in prison after the court earlier convicted him of terrorism charges in a high-profile case in which independent investigations found no proof of wrongdoing.
Mohammed el-Halabi was the Gaza director of the Christian charity World Vision. He is accused of diverting millions to Hamas, an Islamic militant group that controls the territory. This trial and the prolonged confinement of Mohammed el-Halabi have further soured relations between Israel’s humanitarian agencies that aid Palestinians. These ties will likely be affected by the sentence.
The trial sheds light on the way Israel’s legal system handles sensitive security cases, with the defense team given only limited access to evidence, which was also not made public. Critics say the courts too often side with the evidence brought forward by Israel’s security establishment.
“It’s inconceivable,” el-Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, said of the length of the sentence. “They insist that injustice will persist throughout the whole process.”
World Vision and el-Halabi have both refuted the claims. In 2017, an independent audit also concluded that there was no evidence supporting 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 made a statement stating that World Vision’s sentence is in stark contrast with evidence and facts.
“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.”
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Israel’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged the sentence in a statement, saying Israel would continue to prevent “any diversion of humanitarian funds for terrorist purposes.” It also said it was committed to cooperating with and facilitating the work of aid groups, including World Vision, in a way that didn’t violate security considerations.
A district court in Beersheba in southern Israel convicted el-Halabi in June of various charges. These included membership in a terror network, information being given to a terror group and taking part in militant exercise.
It said he diverted “millions” of dollars every year, as well as equipment, from World Vision and its donors to Hamas. It said Hamas used the funds for militant activities, as well as children’s counseling, food aid and Quran memorization contests for its supporters. It stated that nylon and pipes diverted to Hamas were used in military operations.
According to court records, the confession of el Halabi was heavily relied upon by the judge. It has yet not been publicly made public. Hanna, Hanna’s lawyer said that the confession was made under duress by an informant, and shouldn’t have been accepted as evidence. He also said the defense team was granted “very limited access” to the evidence.
“The court left no stone unturned in this case,” said prosecutor Moran Gez, who added that the prosecution had asked for a 16 to 21 year sentence.
Hanna said el-Halabi intended to appeal the verdict and the sentence to the country’s Supreme Court. Hanna claimed that el Halabi rejected several plea bargain offers based on principle, which would have enabled him to walk away.
Israeli officials have stated repeatedly that they have evidence Hamas infiltrated an aid group, and diverted funds from Gazans who needed them. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpeted the charges in an online video shortly after el-Halabi’s arrest.
Critics believe Israel is dependent on unethical informants. To maintain its almost 55-year-old military occupation on lands that the Palestinians desire for a state, Israel is accused of making false accusations about aid and other support groups.
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The rights lawyers criticize what they call a too friendly relationship between the courts, the security system and judges. This leads to an imbalanced approach to how evidence is evaluated and handled.
“It’s not this objective courthouse where two sides can sit together and discuss and argue,” said Adi Mansour of the legal rights group Adalah. “It is an unequal situation where the court sides with the security agencies and the state.”
Israel supports aid organisations’ work, but it must ensure that donor money is not used by armed groups such as Hamas to attack Israel and its citizens. It considers its courts independent and objective.
Israel banned six Palestinian civil society organizations last year over terror links. Israel has not provided any evidence supporting its allegations. Nine European countries have rejected Israel’s charges against the groups, citing a lack of evidence.
After el-Halabi’s arrest, World Vision suspended its activities in Gaza, where over 2 million Palestinians live under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed when Hamas seized power nearly 15 years ago. While Israel claims the restrictions are necessary to control Hamas’s activities, critics see them as collective punishment.
An independent audit of World Vision’s activities in Gaza found no evidence that el-Halabi was affiliated with Hamas or had diverted any funds. The audit found that el-Halabi enforced internal controls, and directed employees not to associate with Hamas.
Emily Rose (Associated Press) contributed this report to Jerusalem.
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