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Charity questions Israeli claims of Hamas aid theft

Charity suspended its activities in Gaza after its director was controversially arrested and accused of diverting funds to Hamas
Palestinian children hold posters of Mohammed Halabi (L), the Gaza director of World Vision, a major US-based Christian NGO, during a protest to support him in Gaza City on 7 August, 2016 (AFP)

An international children's charity on Tuesday questioned Israeli accusations that tens of millions of dollars in aid were funnelled off to the Palestinian movement Hamas, calling the alleged sum "hard to reconcile" with reality.

An Israeli court on Thursday charged the Gaza head of the Christian aid NGO, World Vision, with funding "terror".

According to the Shin Bet internal security agency, Mohammed al-Halabi diverted $7.2 million each year since 2010 to Hamas and its military wing, though the charge sheet does not specify an amount.

Part of it was allegedly used to build attack tunnels from blockaded Gaza into Israel.

World Vision's international president Kevin Jenkins said in a statement the aid organisation was conducting an investigation into the allegations and "condemns any diversion of funds from any humanitarian organisation".

"If any of these allegations are proven to be true, we will take swift and decisive action."

But he said the Christian development charity "have not seen any of the evidence," and suggested the numbers were exaggerated.

"World Vision's cumulative operating budget in Gaza for the past ten years was approximately $22.5 million, which makes the alleged amount of up to $50 million being diverted hard to reconcile," the statement read.

The NGO has suspended its operations in Gaza.

The statement said Halabi became the NGO's Gaza head in 2014 and would have only had the personal authority to sign off a budget up to $15,000.

The NGO said it carried out extensive background checks on its staff.

Halabi's lawyer has also rejected the accusations as baseless, saying his client was held without charge or access to legal support for several weeks after his 15 June arrest.

The NGO has 150 staff across Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, providing aid to around 560,000 people. The group said its work helped more than 92,000 children last year.

In 2012, World Vision Australia was accused by the Israeli Law Centre of funding "terrorism" in Gaza through its work with an agricultural workers union, the UAWC, which it was claimed was a front for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). However, an investigation by the Australian government's aid agency found the allegations were unfounded.