THE manager of World Vision’s Gaza programmes, Mohammad El Halabi, has been arrested by the Israel security service and accused of channelling donations to Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip.
Mr El Halabi’s arrest and charges were announced by Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, on Thursday of last week. He has been accused of diverting about $50 million in World Vision funds to Hamas. Shin Bet said that the money was used to buy weapons and build underground tunnels used by terrorists to attack Israel.
In a statement, World Vision — an international Christian aid agency — said that it had no reason to believe that the claims were true and that it would carefully review any evidence presented. While the investigation continues, however, it has decided to suspend its projects in Gaza.
A second statement on Tuesday from the chief executive of the charity, Kevin Jenkins, said that his organisation was trying to find out the truth of the allegations, but had not yet been shown any evidence.
“World Vision condemns any diversion of funds from any humanitarian organisation, and strongly condemns any act of terrorism or support for those activities. Unfortunately, we still have not seen any of the evidence.”
The claims by Israel did not add up, Mr Jenkins said. He explained that World Vision’s total budget in Gaza over the past ten years was just $22.5 million, making it difficult to believe that as much as $50 million could have been siphoned off to Hamas.
Furthermore, he said, Mr El Halabi had had control over the whole Gaza programme only since 2014 — earlier he managed only parts of the budget — and even now he had the authority to approve spending only up to $15,000.
A spokesman for Hamas, Hazem Qasem, has denied the allegations also, suggesting that they were part of Israel’s attempt to justify its ongoing blockade of the Strip.
Shin Bet said that during interrogation, Mr El Halabi had confessed to being a long-time member of Hamas. World Vision has expressed concerns over due process, however, saying that he was held in detention for 50 days before being charged.
His lawyer, Mohammad Mahmoud, told Al Jazeera that his client went for 21 days without seeing a lawyer, and that he was beaten during questioning.
Shin Bet also claimed, in particular, that £80,000 of cash given by donors in the UK was diverted to Hamas, and helped build an entire base for the group’s military wing.
They also alleged that building materials, including steel and pipes meant to help Gazan farmers, were given to Hamas, and even that some of the World Vision budget was used to pay the salaries of Hamas operatives.
World Vision’s initial statement insists, however, that its spending is rigorously audited. “World Vision has detailed procedures and control mechanisms in place to ensure that the funds entrusted to us are spent in accordance with applicable legal requirements and in ways that do not fuel conflict but rather contribute to peace.
“World Vision programs in Gaza have been subject to regular internal and independent audits, independent evaluations, and a broad range of internal controls aimed at ensuring that assets reach their intended beneficiaries and are used in compliance with applicable laws and donor requirements.”
But the arrest has prompted some countries, including Australia and Germany, to suspend donations to World Vision.
The dispute was detracting from its mission in Gaza, Mr Jenkins concluded. “Last year, our work in Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza, directly benefited more than 92,000 children; nearly 40,000 of those were in Gaza. These projects focus on children’s psycho-social needs, as well as providing medical and other supplies to hospitals, food relief, and re-establishing agricultural livelihoods.”