World Vision defendant el-Halabi sentenced to 12 years

el-Halabi was convicted of most terror financing charges but was acquitted of assisting the enemy because as a Gaza resident, he is not Israeli.

 Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest in solidarity with Mohammad El Halabi, World Vision's manager of operations in Gaza who was accused by Israel of funnelling millions of dollars in aid money to Hamas, organised by foundations and societies benefiting from World Vision in Gaza City Au (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)
Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest in solidarity with Mohammad El Halabi, World Vision's manager of operations in Gaza who was accused by Israel of funnelling millions of dollars in aid money to Hamas, organised by foundations and societies benefiting from World Vision in Gaza City Au
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)

The Beersheba District Court on Tuesday sentenced World Vision defendant Mohammad el-Halabi to 12 years in prison for a conviction on a series of terror financing charges, around six years after his arrest and under pressure from the High Court of Justice to stop dragging its feet.

His convictions were handed down in June, when he was also acquitted of one charge of assisting the enemy, based on the idea that, as a Gaza resident, he was not a citizen of a state.

Halabi's lawyer Maher Hana said that he would appeal the conviction to the Supreme Court.

Conversely, the prosecution said it was considering appealing, noting it had requested between a 16-21 year jail sentence.

The court on Tuesday said that a harsh sentence was needed to deter potential future criminality by humanitarian workers who might think their positions in NGOs could serve as cover for aiding terror groups.

Demonstrators protest in solidarity with Mohammad El Halabi, in Gaza City in 2016. (credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)Demonstrators protest in solidarity with Mohammad El Halabi, in Gaza City in 2016. (credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)

“The 12-year sentence announced today in the trial of Mohammad El Halabi is deeply disappointing and in sharp contrast to the evidence and facts of the case,” said World Vision in response to the sentence, in a case that has received global coverage.

The humanitarian group said, “World Vision emphatically condemns any and all acts of terrorism or support for such activities. We reject any attempt to divert humanitarian resources or exploit the work of aid organizations operating anywhere, and we do not see evidence of these things in this case.”

It added, “The arrest, six-year trial, unjust verdict and this sentence are emblematic of actions that hinder humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank. It adds to the chilling impact on World Vision and other aid or development groups working to assist Palestinians.”

The Foreign Ministry said, “Any diversion of humanitarian funds for terrorist purposes is a reprehensible act committed at the expense of the welfare of the Palestinian residents of Gaza. Israel will continue to use the tools at its disposal to prevent such crimes, and to hold Hamas and other terrorist groups accountable for perpetrating them.” 

“Israel takes note of World Vision’s statement following the judgment, including its condemnation of any act of terrorism or support for such activities, and its rejection of any attempt to divert humanitarian resources or exploit the work of humanitarian organizations,” said the ministry.

Moreover, the ministry said it “acknowledges the importance of humanitarian work in Gaza and continues to support international efforts to provide assistance to the Gazan population. It values and remains committed to cooperating with, and facilitating, the continued operations of humanitarian organizations…in a manner consistent with security considerations and applicable standards.”

NGO Monitor noted that "The El-Halabi affair serves as a cautionary tale for humanitarian actors and their funders. Absent rigorous oversight mechanisms, international aid is liable to be diverted by terrorist and armed actors in conflict zones around the world. The implementation of such measures is the only way to instill confidence in the humanitarian community, and to ensure that aid is delivered to those in need, not diverted to violent extremists."

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, said, “The 12-year sentence against al-Halabi is a profound miscarriage of justice. Holding al-Halabi for six years based on secret evidence, which multiple investigations rejected, made a mockery of due process. Detaining him for six more is just cruel and inhumane. He should long ago have been released. The al-Halabi case exposes how Israel uses its legal system to provide a veneer of legality to mask its ugly apartheid over millions of Palestinians.”

In June, the court found that Halabi confessed to the financial terror charges during his interrogation by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).

The judges said that he was highly sophisticated and that his confession was "coherent, specific and included unique details... which he could not have concocted on the spot."

In addition, they said that there was significant external documentary proof of his actions.

Though the court said that it knew World Vision believes Halabi to be innocent, it said that it was more likely that the organization did not want to overdo oversight of its finances, lest it harms its working relations with Gazan groups.

Although he has already served six years in prison, his maximum sentence for convictions on over a dozen charges could have run over 20 years (though maximum sentences are rare). He will serve just under six more years to fulfill the 12-year sentence.

According to the court ruling, Halabi was recruited by Abu Cuchba of Hamas in 2004.

Though Halabi and his brother, Diya, were initially Hamas fighters, he was eventually assigned to infiltrate World Vision to be an undercover Hamas operative assisting the group, the court said.

World Vision hired him in 2005. Initially, he worked in its northern Gaza section, but by 2014 he had achieved a high management position for the entire Strip.

The judges said that throughout his World Vision employment, Halabi met with Hamas military operatives to keep up with their needs.

In the verdict, the court said that Halabi intentionally diverted large volumes of iron, plastic and digging tools to Hamas to assist it with digging terror tunnels.

Further, the court said that in 2012, Halabi twice visited terror tunnels with his brother and another operative, in one case providing the operative with $20,000 to repair tunnels destroyed by flooding.

Hana said that the court failed to address issues, such as the source and the tracing of the alleged terror funds.

He said that he had direct proof that the prosecution had not shown the full trail of some of the alleged terror funds, but that the court issued a gag order (only a paraphrasing of the verdict was published for national security reasons), preventing him from revealing this to the public.

For example, he said that the $20,000 incident from 2012 was a mix of stories which did not involve El Halabi and even different amounts of money, but that no one had brought evidence even to prove where the alleged $20,000 would have come from.

Addressing two other specific allegations, Hana said El Halabi did not even deal with iron, so he could not have been transferring vast quantities to Hamas and he noted that one accusation involved El Halabi crossing at the Kerem Shalom border post, despite Israeli records showing El Halabi did not cross there during the relevant period as well as the overlapping six-year period.

In contrast, prosecutors involved in the case told The Jerusalem Post that they had presented the court with unambiguous bank statements showing the path of the alleged terror funds.

In the case, the state prosecution accused El Halabi of assisting Hamas on the side to his humanitarian work, but he claimed the charges were made to delegitimize Palestinian civil society.