BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) — An Israeli court on Wednesday found a Gaza aid worker guilty of several terrorism charges in a high-profile case in which his employer, independent auditors and the Australian government have said there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
Mohammed el-Halabi, who was the Gaza director for the international Christian charity World Vision from 2014 until his arrest in 2016, was accused of diverting tens of millions of dollars to the Islamic militant group Hamas that rules the territory.
Both he and World Vision have denied any wrongdoing and an independent audit in 2017 also found no evidence of support for Hamas. His lawyer, Maher Hanna, has said he has turned down several plea bargain offers on principle that would have allowed him to walk free.
He has not yet been sentenced and World Vision said he would appeal the ruling.
The district court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba delivered the verdict Wednesday, saying el-Halabi was guilty of several charges, including membership in a terror organization, providing information to a terror group, taking part in forbidden military exercises and carrying a weapon.
The decision did not describe the diversion of any financial aid to Hamas, but it rejected World Vision's argument that it had firm controls in place that would have prevented it. The decision said the details of the verdict were “confidential and cannot be made public.”
It also referred to a confession by el-Halabi that has not been made public. Hanna has said the confession was given under duress to an informant and should not have been admitted as evidence.
Speaking to reporters immediately after the verdict, Hanna said he had not yet read the full decision but accused the judge of siding with Israeli security forces and relying on evidence that has not been made public.
“All the judge said, if I want to summarize it in one sentence: ‘The security forces cannot be wrong, they are probably right,'” he told reporters.
Sharon Marshall, a spokeswoman for World Vision who has closely followed the case, said the verdict was based on a “lack of substantive and publicly available evidence.”
“We support Mohammed’s intent to appeal the decision and call for a fair and transparent appeal process based on the facts of the case," she said.
The Christian charity operates in nearly 100 countries and annually distributes some $2.5 billion in aid.
An independent forensic audit and investigation carried out nearly five years ago also turned up no evidence against el-Halabi, and instead found that he had actively worked to prevent funds from falling into the hands of Hamas. The Australian government, a major donor to World Vision, also said it found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Israeli authorities stuck to the allegations, repeatedly saying they had proof that Hamas had infiltrated the aid group and was diverting funds from needy Gazans. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpeted the charges in an online video shortly after el-Halabi’s arrest.
Critics say Israel often relies on questionable informants. They allege that Israel smears groups that provide aid or other support to Palestinians in order to shore up its nearly 55-year military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
Israel says it supports the work of aid organizations but is forced to take action to prevent donor funds from falling into the hands of armed groups like Hamas that do not recognize its existence and attack its citizens.
After el-Halabi’s arrest, World Vision suspended its activities in Gaza, where over 2 million Palestinians live under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed when Hamas seized power nearly 15 years ago. Israel says the restrictions are needed to contain Hamas, while critics view them as a form of collective punishment.
World Vision said its entire Gaza budget over the previous 10 years was $22.5 million, making the alleged diversion of $50 million “hard to reconcile.” It worked with several Western donor countries to construct an independent audit. World Vision declined to name the auditors because of a non-disclosure agreement, but last year the Guardian newspaper identified them as the international accounting firm Deloitte and DLA Piper, a global law firm.
A team of around a dozen lawyers, including several former assistant U.S. attorneys, reviewed nearly 300,000 emails and conducted over 180 interviews. Forensic auditors scoured nearly every financial transaction at World Vision from 2010 until 2016.
In July 2017, they submitted an over 400-page report of their findings to World Vision, which shared it with donor governments. World Vision said it offered the report to Israel, but Israeli authorities refused to sign the non-disclosure agreement. Israel has not commented on the audit.
Brett Ingerman, a lawyer with DLA Piper who headed the investigation, confirmed its involvement and told The Associated Press earlier this year that the report found no evidence that el-Halabi was affiliated with Hamas or had diverted any funds. Instead, he said it found that el-Halabi had enforced internal controls and ordered employees to avoid organizations suspected of Hamas ties.
The Australian government conducted its own review, reaching similar conclusions. Australia was the biggest single donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, providing some $4.4 million in the previous three fiscal years, according to its Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There was no immediate comment from Australian officials.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press reporter Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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