In high-profile case, Israeli court finds Gaza aid worker guilty of terror charges

Mother of convicted aid worker with her two grandsons
Amal Halabi holds one grandson while another lifts a picture of Halabi’s son, whom an Israeli court convicted of terrorism charges Wednesday.
(Adel Hana / Associated Press)

An Israeli court 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 all say that there is no evidence of wrongdoing.

Mohammed 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, which rules the Gaza Strip. The trial, and his prolonged detention, have further strained relations between Israel and humanitarian organizations that provide aid to Palestinians.

Both Halabi and World Vision have denied any wrongdoing, and an independent audit in 2017 also found no evidence of any support for Hamas. Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, has said he turned down several plea bargain offers on principle although the deals would’ve allowed his client to walk free.


Halabi has not yet been sentenced, and World Vision said he would appeal the ruling, which was largely based on classified information that has not been made public but was shared with the defense.

In delivering the verdict, the district court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba said Halabi was guilty of several charges, including membership of a terror organization, providing information to a terror group, taking part in forbidden military exercises and carrying a weapon.

It said he diverted “millions” of dollars every year, as well as equipment, from World Vision and its donors to Hamas. It said Hamas used the funds for militant activities, as well as children’s counseling, food aid and Quran memorization contests for its supporters. Pipes and nylon diverted to Hamas were used for military purposes, it said.

The court said it was not convinced by World Vision’s testimony that it had firm controls in place that would have prevented the diversion of such aid. The court said the full 254-page decision was “confidential and cannot be made public.”

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The verdict appeared to rely heavily on a confession by 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.

The court said the confession was “given in various ways,” and “is detailed, coherent, truthful and has many unique details,” including the names and ranks of Hamas operatives, and descriptions of strategic locations in Gaza.


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 — and which he has previously described as unreliable. “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.”

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“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 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 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.

In a statement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry acknowledged Wednesday’s verdict against Halabi and said it “continues to support international efforts to provide assistance to the Gazan population.”

Israel “remains committed to cooperating with, and facilitating, the continued operations of humanitarian organizations, including World Vision, in a manner consistent with security considerations and applicable standards,” the statement said.

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After Halabi’s arrest, World Vision suspended its activities in Gaza, where more than 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 more than 180 interviews. Forensic auditors scoured nearly every financial transaction at World Vision from 2010 until 2016.

In July 2017, they submitted a more-than-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 Halabi was affiliated with Hamas or had diverted any funds. Instead, he said it found that 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.