Israel alleges Gaza World Vision head sent millions to Hamas

Jerusalem (AFP) - An Israeli court on Thursday charged the Gaza director of the World Vision non-governmental organisation with passing millions of dollars to the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas and its armed wing.

Mohammed al-Halabi was alleged to have diverted $7.2 million (6.5 million euros) each year since 2010, with some of it funding the Gaza Strip rulers' military campaign against Israel, said the Shin Bet internal security agency.

Halabi, who was born in 1978, was arrested in June and indicted Thursday on a number of charges, including funding "terror".

The charge sheet said Hamas recruited him to infiltrate World Vision more than a decade ago, and that he rose to become the head of the US-based Christian aid organisation's Gaza operation.

Shin Bet said there was no evidence World Vision's main office was aware of Halabi's actions.

World Vision said it had "no reason to believe" the allegations against Halabi, while Hamas said it had no relationship with him.

Since Halabi took over operations in 2010, roughly 60 percent of World Vision's annual budget in Gaza was diverted to Hamas, including its military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said Shin Bet.

This equated to $7.2 million per year, including about $1.5 million given in cash to Hamas combat units.

World Vision, which employs tens of thousands of people globally, said its programmes were subject to "regular internal and independent audits, independent evaluations" to avoid aid misuse.

"Based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true," it said in a statement.

Major General Yoav Mordechai, head of the military body that coordinates Israeli activities in the West Bank and Gaza, met Thursday night in Tel Aviv with what his office called "senior World Vision officials from America," without identifying them.

"This is a grave incident," an English-language statement from Mordechai's office quoted him as telling the visitors. "Assume responsibility and set your house in order."

It said he gave the World Vision executives Israel's findings on the case and a copy of Halabi's confession and that they renounced "any support, direct or indirect for Hamas."

- Aid groups squeezed -

World Vision works in conjunction with the United Nations, often implementing its projects.

It has worked in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories since 1975.

The UN said it was "aware of the very serious allegations" and would be following the case.

A 2015 statement on World Vision's website said it provided support to roughly 90,000 people in Gaza.

Since 2008, Israel has fought three wars in Gaza with Hamas, which is branded a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Israel said the charges were proof Hamas did not respect the neutrality of aid agencies.

"This money was intended for construction projects, financial aid and even food donations for Gazans in need," said Mordechai in an Arabic-language video message to the people of Gaza.

"Hamas stole this money and passed it to its military wing to build bases, provide salary bonuses and dig tunnels."

Khalil al-Halabi, Mohammed's father, told AFP his son had "no relationship with Hamas or any Palestinian organisation."

Over two-thirds of Gaza's 1.9 million people are dependent on some form of aid, according to the United Nations.

The revelations could put increased pressure on foreign aid organisations working in Gaza, which already feel squeezed between Israel and Hamas.

"We are investigating other international organisations but hope not to come across a case of this magnitude," an Israeli security official said.

Late Thursday night Australia's ambassador to Tel Aviv said that the Israeli allegations were "deeply troubling" and his government was taking immediate action.

"Australia suspending funding to World Vision operations in Palestinian Territories until investigation is complete," ambassador Dave Sharma posted on his official twitter account.

- 'Cynical exploitation' -

Israel maintains a blockade on Gaza and limits the entry of basic goods such as wood and cement, saying they can be put to military use by Hamas.

Rights groups accuse Israel of collective punishment.

In a detailed briefing on the allegations, Shin Bet said Halabi confessed to being recruited in 2004 by the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

The official said he was given a "mission to infiltrate World Vision, get ahead and reach a position of influence".

A year later he joined the organisation, rising to be its Gaza head by 2010, Shin Bet said. He was then able to divert money and resources to Hamas.

Shin Bet said Halabi confessed to having handed over various envelopes of cash, with the largest over $50,000.

It said materials imported to Gaza under the guise of aid projects -- including concrete blocks, scrap metal and pipes -- were diverted to Hamas, which used them to build tunnels.

A military base code-named Palestine was built with money sequestered from World Vision, while food parcels and other aid intended for the needy were delivered to Hamas, according to Shin Bet.

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