Hamas infiltrated a large international aid organization operating in Gaza and redirected tens of millions of dollars – 60 percent – of the organization’s budget to its “military” wing, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) announced on Thursday, following an investigation that lasted almost two months.
The World Vision organization, which operates in 100 countries and employs 46,000 people, fell victim to a complex Hamas takeover scheme, a senior Shin Bet source said, adding that Hamas’s armed wing stole $7.2 million a year from the budget, which was supposed to pay for food, humanitarian assistance, and aid programs for disabled children, and channeled the funds to buy weapons, build attack tunnels, and to other preparations for war with Israel.
World Vision said it was “shocked” by Israel’s allegations and that it had regular internal and independent audits and evaluations as well as a broad range of internal controls to ensure aid reached intended beneficiaries.
“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 that evidence,” the charity’s statement said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, David Keyes, said that “World Vision was hijacked and transformed from an NGO – a nongovernmental organization – into an NGW, a nongovernmental war organization.”
Hamas siphoned tens of millions of dollars intended for the poor and for injured Palestinian children, and used it instead “to build a war machine, and to dig tunnels to attack civilians,” Keyes said.
He characterized this as a “travesty for both Palestinians and Israelis.”
The Shin Bet source named Gazan civil engineer Muhammad Halabi, who has been heading World Vision’s Gaza branch, as the terrorist group’s operative who infiltrated the charity in 2005, rising through its ranks to become head of the branch in 2010.
“The scope of the infiltration by Hamas to this international organization is an unusual event,” the Shin Bet source said.
“It reveals a certain pattern.”
World Vision was unaware of the fact that it was being exploited to channel funds toward war, the Shin Bet source stressed.
Halabi was arrested while trying to enter Israel from the northern Gaza Strip via the Erez crossing in mid-June.
During subsequent interrogation, the Shin Bet learned that he had been recruited by Hamas’s armed wing in 2004, and received a “very focused mission, to penetrate an international aid organization and exploit its resources.”
Money stolen from World Vision was also used to build a military base in Gaza, and to pay the salaries of Izzadin Kassam Brigade “military” wing members.
Hamas used the millions to purchase what items needed to build and maintain its military facilities and tunnels, such as metal, fences, covers for greenhouses, and pipes, according to the investigation.
This came at the expense of food for the needy in Gaza, often literally. Packages of goods for poor Gazans were redirected to Hamas battalions in northern Gaza, the Shin Bet said, adding that 2,500 food packages, worth $100 each, were taken from the people of Gaza.
Some 3,300 packages containing cleaning liquids never reached Gazan civilians either, the source said.
Mental health aid funds were also stolen and sent to the armed wing. Some of the money went to buy weapons from arms traders in Sinai, according to the investigation.
Halabi “in most cases issued false documentation” to facilitate the scheme, the source said.
“This was an organized plan.
Halabi appointed people to the organization who enabled him to do as he pleased.”
World Vision’s east Jerusalem office was raided in recent days.
The organization’s representatives, who were unaware what had been taking place, were due to meet with Israeli security officials on Thursday evening.
“Hamas knew how to exploit a weakness in supervision,” the source said. “While we talk about the difficult economic situation in Gaza, Hamas is taking resources for its military operatives.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group had “no connection to [Halabi] and therefore, all Israeli accusations are void and aim to suppress our people.” Hamas also denies any links to Sinai insurgents.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said this affair revealed something Israel has known for a long time: “That Hamas is fed by money from ‘human rights organizations.’” It is critical to tighten supervision of the donations coming from these groups to ensure that the money is being used for the purposes for which it is earmarked, she said.
Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said Thursday the UN must carry out an “immediate examination” of all such groups to ensure they are not financing terrorism against Israel.
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avi Dichter said: “Once again it has become clear that international organizations operating in Gaza, whether under the patronage of the UN or of Western states, are exploited by a terrorist organization like Hamas to convert funds intended for humanitarian goals into building up terrorist capabilities.”
The “naiveté that characterizes organizations with good intentions to provide humanitarian assistance to Gazans is what enables sophisticated Hamas terrorists to convert the aid into building terrorist infrastructure and finance terrorists, whose only goal is to murder Jews and Palestinians who they disapprove of,” Dichter said.
“It is time these organizations and states finally wake up, and listen to official voices from the State of Israel who have warned time and again about the cynical use Hamas and other terrorist organizations make of these groups,” he continued.
Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold wrote a letter to his counterparts around the word stressing that Hamas is closely linked to Iran, “which is seeking to spread its military influence through its Middle Eastern surrogates from Syria to Yemen.” Moreover, he said, Hamas also works closely with Islamic State in northern Sinai.
“Thus,” he wrote, “the growing capabilities of Hamas that this aid channel promoted served the strategic interests of the most destabilizing forces operating today in the Middle East.”
Reuters contributed to this report.