One of the world’s biggest development NGOs is locked in a battle with Israel over opening up the trial of one of its employees accused of siphoning off donations to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
World Vision’s Mohammed al-Halabi is accused of diverting millions of dollars in aid over the past six years to the Islamist group, which is classified a terrorist organisation by the EU.
But his trial – which opened today (30th August) in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba – is being held without access for the media, public or World Vision representatives.
Until now World Vision, a Christian charity based in the US with an annual budget of $2 billion (€1.8 billion euros), had only issued a statement querying the allegations, but suspending its Gaza operations.
Today World Vision President Kevin Jenkins went public with their anxieties, demanding an open and transparent trial.
“A trial is legitimate if it is transparent,” World Vision International’s president Kevin Jenkins told AFP.
“Obviously with such serious allegations against a staff member, we are calling for him to have a fair hearing.”
All media and even World Vision staff were prevented from attending Tuesday’s hearing, Halabi’s lawyer said.
Halabi was charged on 4 August with diverting some $7.2 million each year since 2010 to Hamas, the Islamist movement that has run the Gaza Strip since 2007.
However, World Vision has pointed out its entire budget for Gaza for the past decade was only $22.5 million.
The NGO also states that El Halabi only became the manager of their Gaza operation in October 2014, and was not authorised to sign off more than $15,000.
“As much as our donors want the truth to come out, we want the truth to come out,” Jenkins said. “Our whole reputation is based on integrity.”
Halabi has not yet spoken in court, but intends to plead not guilty, according to his lawyer.
He initially confessed, Israel said, though Amnesty International said there were allegations he had been mistreated in custody and “may have been forced into ‘confessing’ under duress.”
Amnesty also called for the trial to be opened to the media.
The case will reconvene in early October.
Halabi’s arrest was followed by similar allegations against a Save the Children employee and the arrest of a United Nations worker for allegedly funnelling rubble to Hamas to build a military jetty.
The UN has disputed the allegations.
Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars since 2008 and Hamas is labelled a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.
Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said the allegations showed a “troubling trend of the systematic exploitation (of aid) by Hamas terrorists.”
Charities working in Gaza have some of the tightest controls on funds in the world, partly due to tough counter-terrorism legislation.
The impoverished Palestinian enclave has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates. More than two-thirds of the population rely on some form of foreign aid, according to the United Nations.
“We are not a naive organisation. We have world-class systems to prevent the sort of things that are being alleged here,” Jenkins said.
“They are not foolproof, (but) they would generally have all sorts of red lights going off if anything close to what is being alleged should happen.
“It is very difficult to reconcile those numbers against the controls we have in place.”
The NGO has currently suspended its projects in the Palestinian territories pending an internal review, but Jenkins said there was a “strong desire to return to Gaza”.
“We can only work in places where we can perform our work with integrity. We feel like we have done that in the past. I feel like we will be able to do it going forward.”
World Vision stressed its employees were pre-vetted, and that if the allegations proved true “swift and decisive action would be taken.”
It has five offices and 150 staff across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.
According to the NGO, it work in Gaza helped some 92,000 children, and consisted of supplying medical needs for hospitals, food relief and agricultural work.
The EU has been providing assistance to Gaza since 2000, through DG Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection. It’s total aid package for 2016 for Palestinians is €252 million.