BEERSHEBA: An Israeli court on Tuesday sentenced a Gaza aid worker to 12 years in prison after he was found guilty of several terrorism charges in a high-profile case in which independent audits and investigations found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Mohammed el-Halabi, the Gaza director for the international Christian charity World Vision, was arrested in 2016 and accused of diverting tens of millions of dollars to the Islamic militant group Hamas that rules the territory. The trial, and his prolonged detention, have further strained relations between Israel and humanitarian organizations that provide aid to Palestinians. The sentence is likely to continue to affect those ties.
“It’s inconceivable,” el-Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, said of the length of the sentence. “They insist that injustice will persist throughout the whole process.”
Both el-Halabi and World Vision have denied the allegations and an independent audit in 2017 also found no evidence of support for Hamas. Australia, which was the biggest single donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, came to similar conclusions in its own review.
In a statement, World Vision said the sentence stood in sharp contrast to the evidence and facts of the case.
“The arrest, six-year trial, unjust verdict and this sentence are emblematic of actions that hinder humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank,” the group said. “It adds to the chilling impact on World Vision and other aid or development groups working to assist Palestinians.”
Hanna said el-Halabi intended to appeal the verdict and the sentence to the country’s Supreme Court.
Israeli authorities have repeatedly said they have 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 must prevent donor funds from falling into the hands of armed groups like Hamas that do not recognize it and attack its citizens.