After four-and-half-years since World Vision operations manager Mohammad el-Halabi was indicted in Beersheba District Court for smuggling $7.2 million a year to Hamas to buy weapons and build attack tunnels, it is still unclear when there will be a verdict on whether he was a humanitarian or working with Hamas – or both.
Updates from Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hana, and the Justice Ministry on Wednesday indicate that closing arguments are scheduled for March 3.
Halabi was indicted for allegedly using World Vision as a front, instead of the organization using the money for food, humanitarian assistance and aid programs for disabled children as earmarked.
The indictment said that World Vision operated in 100 countries and employed 46,000 people, but had fallen victim to a complex Hamas takeover scheme led by Halabi.
World Vision denied the allegations and claimed it was “shocked,” since it had completed regular internal and independent audits and evaluations as well as a broad range of internal controls to ensure aid reached intended beneficiaries.
Australia, which was funding the World Vision Gaza project, eventually cut its funding, though a government audit did not find the wrongdoing allegedly uncovered by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Despite being indicted in August 2016, it is still unclear when there will be a verdict from the Beersheba District Court.
In addition, the legal proceedings themselves have been rife with irregularities much more typical of Israel’s military courts than of what takes place in civilian courts.
In April 2018 and again in July 2020, the High Court of Justice rejected Hana’s request to intervene in the case to compel the prosecution to play by more standard civilian court rules.
In the 2020 decision, the High Court confirmed allegations by Hana that the legal proceedings had gone forward with unusual restrictions, including: not all documentary evidence was presented to Hana; the lawyer had to question Shin Bet agents without being able to see them; and some evidence was presented to Hana, but he could only see it once, without taking notes or being given a copy.
Additional issues included: Shin Bet agents consulting certain evidence while testifying, without presenting that evidence to the court; the computer that Hana used in court had to be disconnected from any online network; and he could not receive full transcripts of court proceedings that he had participated in.
Hana added that in May 2020, the court put limits on what he could write down about the case even within his own law office, and that the prosecution threatened him with arrest if he violated the limitations.
What was striking about the 2020 High Court decision was that justices Daphna Barak-Erez, Noam Sohlberg and Yael Wilner did not seem bothered by the unusual measures. They rejected the petition on the technical grounds that it should be filed only as part of a final appeal at the end of the case.
Though technically correct, the justices would certainly have intervened if they really believed that the unusual measures were improper.
The unanimous rejection by the justices was more significant because the panel included Barak-Erez, part of the High Court’s unapologetic liberal wing.
The Justice Ministry previously responded that the special measures are necessary to protect the Shin Bet agents’ identities, as well as other top-secret undercover sources and methods that the agency used to penetrate Hamas and catch Halabi.
“Shin Bet witnesses’ identities are protected by law,” the ministry said. “These witnesses are testifying at the trial in the presence of the defendant and his counsel, and therefore the defendant’s right to a defense is intact. Some of the evidence that was presented at trial is classified with respect to the general public, but is not confidential with respect to the defendant or his counsel, who know the contents.”
In addition, the ministry noted, witnesses who testified about this evidence were questioned by the defense.
It should be noted that unusual measures in national security cases are not unprecedented. Some of the measures in this case were used to protect the Shin Bet and their sources and methods in cases against Jewish terrorists, like Amiram Ben Uliel.
In the US, special measures have been used, such as the case against officials of the Holy Land Foundation who were convicted of smuggling terrorist funds to Hamas.
In fact, a Shin Bet agent known as “Avi” was allowed to testify in that case in closed court to maintain his anonymity, over objections by the defense.
Some of those cases started in 2001 and 2004 and ran until 2008, or even later with certain appeals.
There are other reasons that the Halabi case has been so drawn out, on top of the dozens of witnesses being called.
When Halabi was represented by lawyer Lea Tsemel in August 2016, there were discussions between the prosecution and Halabi that seemed likely to lead to a plea bargain deal.
When no deal was reached, the prosecution took the unusual measure in January 2017 of adding to the original indictment new charges of aiding an enemy in time of war and passing on information to the enemy.
The district court was uneasy about the changes, but it ultimately rejected Halabi’s argument that the new charges were illegitimate and were merely being added to penalize him for refusing a plea deal. The court said that he had not yet responded to the original indictment, and the trial had not started.
Regarding the plea deal, some critics of the prosecution have said that the reported three-year prison term they were ready to offer Halabi shows that the evidence against him is much weaker than the public face of the case.
These critics say that covering up this embarrassment, and not protecting sources and methods, is the reason that the case had taken place almost entirely behind closed doors and with restrictions on the defense.
Tsemel told The Jerusalem Post in 2017 that the state was zigzagging and unsure of what to do with the case, after it realized that forcing World Vision out of Gaza was going to cause greater hunger and more pictures of starving children.
But the prosecution said there was no blackmail; that plea bargain negotiations are a standard part of the criminal process; and that if Halabi had rejected negotiating up front, the new charges would have been added much sooner.
There was also some additional delay when Halabi switched lawyers from Tsemel to Hana.