Gazan aid worker Mohammed Al Halabi has been held in prison in Israel since 2016. (Reuters: Dudu Grunshpan)
More than three years after he was arrested, Israeli prosecutors are yet to prove allegations against a man accused of funnelling millions of dollars of Australian aid to a terrorist group.
- In 2016 Israel authorities accused Gazan aid worker Mohammed Al Halabi of funnelling World Vision funds to Hamas
- Investigations by the Australian Government and World Vision failed to find any evidence money was diverted
- Mr Al Halabi is being held in prison in Israel and his case has been to court more than 130 times
Once every two months, Amal Al Halabi gets two of her grandchildren out of bed early for the four-hour return trip from their home in Gaza City to a high-security prison deep in the Negev desert of southern Israel.
After the Red Cross gets them through the fortified, high-tech Israeli checkpoint at Gaza’s northern border, it is a long drive to the isolated facility that houses “security” prisoners, usually members of militant Palestinian factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The children go to see their father, Gazan aid worker Mohammed Al Halabi, who was arrested in August 2016 on a routine trip out of Gaza for his employer, the international charity World Vision.
For one long night, the family did not know where Mr Al Halabi was, or what had happened to him.
“It was so tough on us, it was hard to imagine,” his mother said.
“The food I cooked for him was still on the table. We were screaming and crying, and [are] still crying until today. It was very shocking. It is very sad, to us and to everyone who knew Mohammed.
“We never expected this to happen to him.”
Israel authorities accused Mr Al Halabi of funnelling tens of millions of dollars of aid money, $US7.2 million ($10.8 million) per year, to the Islamist group Hamas and charged him with aiding Israel’s enemy in a time of war.
The father of five was World Vision’s operations manager in Gaza, supervising programs for farmers, fishermen and children affected by the trauma of constant conflict with Israel.
In 2014, the United Nations named him a “humanitarian hero”.
But the Israeli Government said Mr Al Halabi had been diverting foreign aid, especially Australian funding, to Hamas’ military wing, the Al Qassam brigades.
Israel said the group, a listed terrorist organisation in Australia, had used the money to build military bases and tunnels and pay bonuses to its members.
“Innocent and impoverished Palestinians were denied vital aid supplied from nations around the world … Hamas used this money to build a war machine to murder Jews,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time.
Initially, the Israeli Government said Mr Al Halabi confessed, but when he was eventually brought before a court, he told the judge he had been tortured and denied the allegations.
He said he had been beaten so severely he had lost some of his hearing.
Despite the seriousness of the charges, Mr Al Halabi was offered a plea deal of three years in jail, which would have already seen him released.
But he rejected it, saying he would not plead guilty to something he did not do.
Since then his case has been to court more than 130 times.
‘Can this thing happen in our legal system?’
Amal Al Halabi and her grandchildren look at pictures of Mohammed Al Halabi. (ABC News: Tom Hancock)
Mr Al Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, said the state has imposed unprecedented security restrictions which prevent him from properly cross-examining prosecution witnesses, from bringing some of his own witnesses out from Gaza to testify and to even keep copies of the court transcripts.
He said he is not even allowed to discuss some of the other restrictions.
“In my experience, I never met something close even to that, what’s happening in this case,” Mr Hanna said.
“But not only that, all the friends, all the experienced friends that I’m telling about what’s happening in this case, either they don’t believe what I’m saying or they are shocked, totally shocked, [saying] ‘Can this thing happen in our legal system?'”
The charges against Mr Al Halabi led the Australian Government to suspend its funding to World Vision’s Gaza programs, a decision which remains in effect.
But subsequent investigations by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, independent auditors and World Vision have all failed to show any evidence money was diverted.
World Vision’s former regional manager, Conny Lenneberg, told 7.30 Mr Al Halabi simply did not have access to the amount of money he was accused of stealing.
“I’ve seen no evidence in support of the allegations that Mohammed Al Halabi diverted resources to Hamas … neither from the investigations that World Vision international has undertaken, nor the independent external audits that were done nor from the case,” she said.
“In fact, one of the core allegations which is that $50 million was diverted, is completely incomprehensible, given that nowhere near that amount of money was committed to the programs in Gaza in the 10-year period in question.”
‘Very clear this is a political case’
Police from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas man a checkpoint in Gaza. (ABC News: Tom Hancock)
Yarden Vatikay, the former head of Israel’s National Information Directorate, a part of the prime minister’s office that deals with the public release of military and security information, said the discrepancies in the publicly available evidence were not important.
“We know that he diverted millions of dollars, probably tens of millions of dollars. It was about 60 per cent of the whole budget,” he said.
“Now we accuse him of manipulating the money with straw companies that he hired. The companies received money from him and from other sources and some of the money was diverted to Hamas and of course, he knew that.
“So I wouldn’t bet on the exact sum and I don’t think it’s really important — I think the whole thing is important because it’s taking money that was intended to go for the poor people of Gaza who need humanitarian aid and providing it to the Hamas war machine.”
But the businesspeople accused of conspiring with Mr Al Halabi to divert the money also deny the allegations.
World Vision supplier Nabil Atta told 7.30 he has ongoing contracts for other major aid providers, including the UN.
“We used to work on the ground, and everything was done with transparency. Every project we were assigned to work on was monitored and approved by the international agents who were coming to observe and approve,” he said.
Mr Atta has an alternative explanation for the charges.
“Mohamed Al Halabi is a very successful man who helps Gazan society, and I think the Israelis don’t like to see someone like him active and successful helping the community,” he said.
Mr Al Halabi’s lawyer, Mr Hanna, also questions the motivation for the prosecution.
“Is very clear to me that this is a political case,” he said.
“It has nothing to do with law and all our hope is at the end the judges will rule by law.”
The Israeli Government did not answer questions about the alleged torture of Mr Al Halabi, the plea deal he was offered or the Australian investigations which found no evidence of wrongdoing.
It issued a statement saying: “All of the accusations against Mr Al Halabi are well-founded in evidential material and we reject any claims to the contrary.
“For that reason, and because of the security risk he poses, the court has ruled that he should be remanded until the end of the proceedings.
“It is important to note that all legal proceedings against Mr Al Halabi are being carried out in accordance with Israeli law and are under constant judicial review, both by the District Court presiding over the case and by the Israeli Supreme Court in the relevant aspects.”