My investigation in the Israel/Palestine news outlet +972 Magazine:
“I’ve never heard of any case like this in Israel before,” says Maher Hanna. “Even in the [nuclear whistle-blower] Mordechai Vanunu case, his lawyer had more access to their client than I do.”
Hanna is the attorney representing Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Halabi, a World Vision manager born in a Gaza refugee camp who three years ago was accused by Israel of funneling around $43 million from the Christian charity to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Since 2016, Israel has not provided any evidence to Halabi or World Vision to prove its case, and yet Halabi’s trial continues in an Israeli court, unresolved and with no end in sight. His lawyer tells me that he has no idea if Halabi will remain in a remote prison near Be’er Sheva without being convicted for many more years.
“This case is unprecedented in the Israeli legal system,” Hanna says. “Israel knows that Halabi is innocent. Some Israeli officials told me that.” Nonetheless, Hanna acknowledges that the panel of three judges could find his client guilty.
+972 Magazine has spent months investigating the Halabi case, examining the origins of the allegations, the reasons behind them, and speaking to key players in the story. The picture that emerges from many pages of internal World Vision documents, rarely heard details of the court case, and a correspondence with Halabi himself, is more than just that of an innocent Palestinian being tortured, mistreated and pressured to capitulate to Israeli demands; it also raises uncomfortable questions for many in the global and Israeli media who willingly accept Israeli government claims about Palestinians — even when there is no supporting evidence.
When the allegations against Halabi first surfaced in 2016, a senior official with the Shin Bet toldjournalists that Halabi had been recruited by Hamas in 2005 and instructed to join World Vision. After Halabi became head of World Vision in Gaza in 2010, the Israeli official claimed that he had eventually transferred around 60 percent of the organization’s annual budget in Gaza to Hamas. The allegedly stolen money had been spent on digging cross-border tunnels for Hamas militants to enter Israel, building a Hamas military base, and stealing humanitarian aid destined for hungry families in Gaza, according to the Israeli narrative.
It’s a common complaint by Israeli officials, rarely backed up with hard evidence, that Palestinian employees of international aid groups in Gaza exploit their positions to help Hamas. A number of Palestinians working in Gaza have been arrested and confessed to helping Hamas over the years, but lawyers for the accused men have always alleged that these confessions were elicited through torture at the hands of the Shin Bet. Israel still routinely tortures Palestinians, including children. Hanna says that prosecution witnesses in Halabi’s trial have acknowledged during cross examination being tortured by the Shin Bet and admitting falsehoods.
Israel is running a constant campaign against civil society groups that support the Palestinians in the West Bank, and especially in Gaza. Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in 2016 that World Vision must have known about Halabi’s transgressions because, “I imagine that in the World Vision organization, which is very anti-Israeli, they turned a blind eye.” There was no evidence for this allegation.
Erdan further alleged without proof that World Vision had allowed Halabi to transfer $7 million of the organization’s funds annually to Hamas. Expert witnesses for the defense have testified that it would be impossible to have committed fraud on such a scale in Gaza because the World Vision budget was $22.5 million over the entire decade. In fact, according to his lawyer, Halabi was trying hard to keep World Vision’s activities away from Hamas, despite the militant group’s control over the strip.
Israel held Halabi incommunicado for 50 days after his arrest in 2016, after which Israeli authorities falsely claimed that he had confessed to the allegations against him. A gag order meant that nobody in the public even knew he had been arrested, and at the time, the head of World Vision in Australia, Tim Costello, blasted Israel for not allowing Halabi access to a lawyer. Halabi and Hanna both told me that he was tortured by Israel during this period of incarceration, which included solitary confinement and beatings.
The Australian government was quick to suspend its financial support to World Vision projects in Gaza in 2016. The Australian ambassador to Israel at the time, Dave Sharma, called the allegations “deeply disturbing.” But by 2017, an investigation by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) concluded that there was no basis to support the claim that Halabi had diverted any Australian money to Hamas.
World Vision has supported Halabi during the entire legal process, and two internal investigations found no evidence to support the Israeli allegations against him.
Today, World Vision continues to serve thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but its Gaza programs remain suspended until the Halabi case is resolved. According to a U.S.-based spokeswoman Sharon Marshall, the Christian organization has “yet to see any substantive evidence to support the charges against Mohammed Halabi.”
“We continue to follow the court process but are not asserting any pressure regarding timing (or anything else about the trial),” she continued. “While governments including the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia and others continue to support our work around the world, they are not directly involved in or supporting the Halabi case.”
The last public comment from World Vision about the trial, a statement from 2017, is scathing of Israeli actions negatively affecting its ability to operate in Gaza. “We remain deeply concerned with this situation, and are saddened by the impact on Gaza’s children and their families,” it said. “Aid from the international community remains a lifeline for 1.1 million people in Gaza, and one in four children in Gaza are in need of psychosocial support.”
Halabi’s father, Khalil Halabi, who is based in Gaza and has worked for UNRWA for 40 years, tells me that his son’s health has been affected by incarceration. After his 2016 arrest, Mohammed was tortured and beaten around the head by Israeli officials, he says, and as a result he suffered 40 percent hearing loss. “The Israeli authorities targeted my son to tighten the siege on Gaza Strip,” Khalil says.
Mohammed Halabi explains to me, through his lawyer who recently visited him in jail, that his physical health has seriously suffered during imprisonment due to the Israeli authorities restricting access to appropriate dental care.
The pace of Halabi’s trial has been absurdly slow. The trial began in August 2016 and there have been more than 100 court hearings. In early 2017, an Israeli judge told Halabi that he should accept a plea deal because there was “little chance” he wouldn’t be convicted. Judge Nasser Abu Taha of the Be’er Sheva District Court reminded the accused that conviction rates were extremely high in similar cases. “You’ve read the numbers and the statistics,” the judge said in March 2017. “You know how these issues are handled.” Halabi refused, instead preferring to prove his innocence. Hanna says that the prosecution expected Halabi would take a plea deal, as most Palestinians in similar situations do.
Asked about the length of the case, Eden Klein, the Foreign Press Spokesperson from the Israeli Ministry of Justice, told me that, “the trial, during which dozens of witnesses have testified, is still ongoing. Naturally such proceedings may take time.” The spokesperson refused to say whether Israel had ongoing conversations with Australia or World Vision about the trial.
Halabi’s Jerusalem-based lawyer, Hanna, tries to visit Halabi as often as possible but says Israel constantly puts obstacles in his way when needing to spend sufficient time with his imprisoned client. “I’ve often not been able visit or sit with him and I can’t give him any materials to read,” Hanna says. “I could only speak to him over the phone and I presume somebody was listening in on the call. I can now visit him but only spend three to four hours with him and that’s not enough. When I want to visit him, authorities often find excuses to stop me.”
Hanna says that Halabi is now doing relatively well psychologically but is frustrated with the slowness of the trial. Halabi has not been allowed to testify in English, never receives accurate translations of the court proceedings, and Israeli authorities have consistently refused to record the hearings to assist in translation.
As of April 2019, according to the Israeli Prison Service and military, 5,152 Palestinian security detainees and political prisoners were being held in Israeli prisons, many of whom are imprisoned without charge or trial under administrative detention.
Last December, Hanna suggested to the court that Halabi could be released to house arrest and wear an electronic ankle monitor. Israeli authorities said that Halabi was too dangerous and the court refused.
Halabi believes his arrest was part of a “fishing expedition in order to attempt to increase the siege on the residents of Gaza. They were not only attacking me but the entire system of humanitarian aid to Gaza, of which I was only a part.” He says that he’s being punished by the Israeli court for refusing to accept a plea deal, and that when released, he intends to “continue my humanitarian activities for the needy children and to help improve the quality of life of the residents of Gaza or anywhere else in the world.”
One of the main obstacles in defending Halabi is Israel’s refusal to allow his attorney to visit Gaza and meet witnesses who could bolster his case. The court has also refused to grant permits for many Palestinian witnesses from Gaza who want to testify in Halabi’s defense. The prosecution alleges that Halabi is sending messages from prison to witnesses in Gaza to dissuade them from coming to his defense because their attendance and evidence would destroy his story.
Hanna says that the opposite is true; he’s begging the Israeli authorities to bring these people from Gaza because they’re so keen to testify in Halabi’s case and explain his innocence. These witnesses are called “terrorists” by Israel, despite Hanna explaining to the court that they are civilians in Gaza. They are refused permission to enter Israel for Halabi’s trial, when in fact, several of these witnesses have already entered Israel for personal reasons and traveled out of the country.
After three years, the prosecution has barely brought any witnesses except Shin Bet operatives and a person whose identity Hanna says he cannot reveal.
Hanna dismisses the Israeli claims that state secrets are the reason the case is taking so long. The only reason the “evidence” against Halabi is kept secret, Hanna says, “is because if the information was revealed it would be a very big scandal. People will laugh that this is the information that Israel is using. Israel would be embarrassed.”
In contrast to the standard burden of proof in criminal law, where the state must prove that someone is guilty, in security cases like Halabi’s “we have to prove innocence beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hanna says. “It contradicts what we learned in law school.”
The media coverage around the Halabi case makes for a grim case study in journalistic independence. When he was arrested and charged in 2016, both Israeli and global media covered the case extensively, largely republishing unsubstantiated Israeli claims as fact.
Even rarer, was any mention of the various ways that Palestinians are pressured to admit to charges, from plea deals that spare years behind bars while awaiting trial (like Halabi’s case), to torture, to the use of secret evidence, to the threat of administrative detention.
“What bothers me the most,” Hanna says, “is when I Google Mohammed Halabi and it says that he’s admitted collaborating with Hamas. It’s unfair that my hands are tied to respond to this.”
After three years of the Halabi case, the public still knows virtually nothing about his situation. Even more absurdly, Halabi and his legal team are often in the dark when it comes to seeing hard evidence and following proper legal procedures. That few of the reporters who originally covered Halabi’s arrest now seem interested in his case says a great deal about the parlous state of independent journalism and thought when covering the Israeli political and legal systems.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, Australian journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, the BBC, The Washington Post, The Nation, the Huffington Post, Haaretz, and many others. He’s the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe, writer/co-producer of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism, and co-director of an Al-Jazeera English film on opioids in Africa. His forthcoming book is Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs. His other books include My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, he’s the co-editor of the books Left Turn and After Zionism and contributor to For God’s Sake.