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Gaza: World Vision in Israel’s sights?

Gaza millions missingThere has been an orchestrated campaign against World Vision’s Gaza office — part of systemic crackdown by Israel on international NGOs, analysts say.

This month, the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) – or Shin Bet – announced serious charges against a Gaza-based Palestinian employee of the global Christian charity, World Vision.

According to Shin Bet, Mohammad el-Halabi, the head of World Vision’s Gaza office, funnelled tens of millions of dollars of aid money to Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades in an elaborate, years-long scheme.  El-Halabi was allegedly tortured by Israeli authorities before he was charged with funnelling millions of dollars in aid money to Hamas.

Israeli officials wasted no time in publicising allegations that boosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s narrative that Hamas is exploiting naive, or nefarious, international aid groups.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote directly to counterparts around the world, connecting the affair to both Iran and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), as well as publishing background briefings and graphics for social media. Israel’s military spokesperson has also been active about the case.

Israeli diplomats were reportedly “specifically … instructed to spread the news … among liberal and religious groups who support World Vision.”

But is everything as it seems? The lawyer representing Halabi, Mohammad Mahmoud, told Al Jazeera that his client did not see a lawyer for 21 days, and says the World Vision official was physically abused in detention: “They beat him a lot.”

Mahmoud added that Halabi “denies all allegations,” including the “confession” cited by a senior Israeli official as “the evidence” grounding the allegations.

World Vision Australia chief executive officer Tim Costello said Mr Halabi has worked with World Vision for 10 years, and that they have “no reason to believe” the allegations against their employee are true.

“No reason to believe allegations:” Head of World Vision Australia, the Rev. Tim Costello 

Reverend Tim Costello speaks on a charitable view of the Abbott government's first year in office at the National Press Club in Canberra, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt) NO ARCHIVING

“I’m profoundly shocked. And they are very explosive allegations,” Mr Costello (right) said. “We have only heard one side…”

“We have PricewaterhouseCoopers that audit us each year. We’ve got the 2014 audits, the 2015 audits that just came in a few weeks ago.

“We have not just our own internal processes to check about connections to terror or terrorists — we have an independent body outside World Vision that interviews and does security checks.”

Israeli authorities accuse Mr Halabi of initiating a greenhouse project in order to use the greenhouses to hide the sites where terror tunnels were being dug.

In March this year, Mr Halabi took the Australian Ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, on a tour of Australian funded aid projects in the Gaza Strip.

They visited an agricultural scheme and a strawberry farm, all part of World Vision aid work in Gaza that the Australian Government has given over $5 million to over the past three years.

But this month, Mr Halabi appeared in a courtroom in the Israeli town of Beersheba, wearing a prison uniform, flanked by two armed Israeli guards.

He has been charged with using millions of World Vision funds to pay Hamas fighters, buy arms, pay for Hamas activities, and build fortifications.

FULL STORY:  Christian charity ‘top of Israel’s target list’ (Al Jazeera)

RELATED COVERAGE: Lawyer: Palestinian Denies Funneling Charity Money to Hamas (Forward)

RELATED COVERAGE: Palestinian denies funneling charity money to Hamas (Jerusalem Post)

RELATED COVERAGE:  The Palestinian Charity Trap (The Wall Street Journal)

MAIN IMAGE:  Palestinians and international NGO workers alike have dismissed the charges and called for Halabi’s release [Reuters]

Portrait: Mohammed Al Halabi became head of World Vision’s Gaza operations in 2010. (Reuters: Dudu Grunshpan)

Portrait : The Rev. Tim Costello at the National Press Club in Canberra, September 2014. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)