Humanitarian wrongfully convicted for aiding beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza
(RNS) — Mohammad El Halabi, the director of the Christian charity World Vision in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, was known for working hard in one of the world’s toughest humanitarian environments. His work was so well-regarded that in 2014 the United Nations awarded him the “Humanitarian Hero” award and his organization named him “Humanitarian of the Year”.
He became so well-regarded for helping beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza that in June 2016, as he was returning from a meeting with his manager in Jerusalem, Israeli authorities arrested him. According to media reports, it was discovered that he had directed $50 million in humanitarian aid to a Palestinian armed group that Israel considers terrorists.
For 50 days he was tortured, prevented from seeing his lawyer and beaten up. He lost 40% of his hearing due to abuse by Israeli soldiers. He dismissed the accusations from his Israeli interrogators, as did World Vision, a US-based Christian relief organization.
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The immediate result of this arrest was the closure of the World Vision office. The NGO launched an extensive audit to see if El Halabi had indeed done anything wrong. The Australian government has done the same, one of the major funders of World Vision’s efforts in the Middle East. After an exhaustive search including emails and all accounting records, no evidence of wrongdoing was found.
Israel’s Beersheba District Court, which handled the case, imposed a gag order on all evidence in the case, which hid the evidence from public view, even much of its own attorney. Since the Israelis had also added a charge of treason, his attorney was unable to secure El Halabi’s release from prison while the case continued. Instead, Israeli prosecutors have repeatedly offered to have him released on the condition that he admit guilt, even on a minor charge.
He refused, insisting that any admission of guilt would have negative consequences for the Palestinian people he is trying to help.
Continued blocking by prosecutors has forced his lawyer to appeal 24 times to Israel’s Supreme Court. After the final appeal, the court ordered the Beersheba court, which heard final arguments in the summer of 2021, to issue a decision. On Wednesday, June 15, the district court, sitting behind closed doors, exonerated El Halabi of the treason charge while convicting him, curiously, of supporting and abetting terrorists.
The court offered no evidence, basing its entire decision on a document it says contains a confession El Halabi made to one of the cellmates the Israelis sent him. El Halabi admits to telling his cellmate things that could possibly incriminate him, knowing the man was an Israeli mole, in hopes of stopping the torture he was undergoing. He thought his “confession” would not hold up, believing that what he said could easily be refuted.
El Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, compared the use of a confession in prison without corroborating evidence to convicting someone for the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, even as the alleged victim walking around, obviously alive.
Hanna pointed to El Halabi’s claim in the alleged admission that he took photos of sites in Israel in 2009, but Israeli records show that El Halabi never entered Israel that year nor no other. The court also accepted Israeli intelligence claims that it ordered the import of tons of metal bars into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing. But World Vision never imported anything from that waypoint, records show. Another piece of so-called evidence refers to a grant to Gaza from the UK that El Halabi allegedly diverted to Hamas. The UK has never made any contributions to Gaza.
Human Rights Watch, the UN, members of the Australian Parliament and others have repeatedly called for El Halabi’s release. Human Rights Watch’s director for Israel and the occupied territories called the conviction a “miscarriage of justice.”
“In our opinion,” World Vision said in a statement after El Halabi’s sentencing, “there were irregularities in the trial and a lack of substantial evidence available to the public.”
El Halabi was arrested at a time when the Netanyahu government wanted to put more pressure on ordinary Palestinians. An Israeli official said publicly at the time that the government did not want to starve Gazans to death, but wanted to “put them on a diet”.
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The case against El Halabi has dealt a blow to faith in the Israeli justice system. More importantly, it has helped perpetuate an illegal and immoral siege of nearly 2 million human beings living in the occupied Gaza Strip, which Israelis know is not sustainable. Ironically, while EL Halabi was wrongly accused of diverting humanitarian aid to Hamas, the Netanyahu government approved the transfer of millions of dollars in suitcases to Hamas to ensure that Gaza did not explode under the seat pressure.
Rarely has a case so clearly exposed the injustice of the Israeli judicial system and the total control of the Israeli intelligence services over its deliberations. It is high time for Mohammad El Halabi to be released and for the Christian charity he worked for, World Vision, to be allowed to reopen and provide needed aid to the people of the Gaza Strip.
(Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkutab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
This story has been corrected. Due to an editing error, an earlier version incorrectly stated that El-Halabi was affiliated with World Relief.